Trump eyes Lewandowski for Kelly's job amid White House infighting

There are growing whispers that if John Kelly is eased out or bails out as White House chief of staff, the job could go to Corey Lewandowski.

I can report, based on my sources, that the president and his first campaign manager have discussed that possibility. Lewandowski has said he would accept a White House post if Trump calls him off the bench. But in the end it's unlikely to happen.

Still, the mere fact that Lewandowski is on the radar for the top job, after the campaign fired him in the spring of 2016, underscores his rising stock and the changing climate.

The president is increasingly focused on the midterms and, my sources say, believes the combative Lewandowski can be a valuable asset as Democratic chances of winning the House seem to be improving.

The signs are unmistakable that Lewandowski, now a consultant, TV surrogate and chief strategist for America First Policies, is back in the inner circle.

He and Trump speak regularly on the phone. He joined the president on Air Force One on the way to a Michigan rally over the weekend. Trump told the crowd: "Speaking of not being a patsy or a pushover, you ever watch Corey Lewandowski on the shows? Where's Corey? Corey!"

In calling Corey up to the stage, Trump said: "He only ran one campaign and he won. So he’s one for one." Lewandowski declared to the crowd that "this is Trump country!"

(The president also gave a shout-out to Citizens United chief Dave Bossie, a Fox News contributor and former deputy campaign manager.)

Trump wants Lewandowski to accompany him on other political trips as well. It's well known that the president likes being surrounded by people he is comfortable with, and the New Hampshire resident joined his orbit even before the campaign launched.

But Lewandowski is reluctant to take a top White House job, as Trump well knows. It would mean a huge pay cut for an operative who has spent two years building a business and has four children to support.

In an MSNBC interview Tuesday, Lewandowski ducked Chuck Todd’s question about "people speculating that you should be his chief of staff," and called Kelly "an American hero" who has "instilled discipline" in the building. He did not respond to several requests for comment.

Lewandowski is controversial and has his share of enemies inside the mansion. White House insiders say that while he is a trusted adviser to Trump, at least half the staff would resign if he were tapped as chief of staff. They don't believe Lewandowski, with no government experience, knows how to run an operation as complex as the West Wing, and say Trump knows he would be blowing things up by hiring him. And Lewandowski, for his part, would certainly want to bring in key aides to support him.

Another potential downside is that if Republicans get clobbered in November, Lewandowski would get much of the blame. And if the past is any indication, his tenure would be limited.

And yet chatter about the idea is growing in conservative circles. American Conservative ran a piece headlined "Corey Lewandowski: The Chief of Staff Trump Wants."

When Kelly took over last year, he tried to impose military-style discipline on the White House and limit Trump's contact with outsider advisers such as Lewandowski. Those restrictions have loosened as Kelly's authority has ebbed and his relationship with the president has grown increasingly tense.

Knowledgeable sources say that Trump's relations with Kelly are indeed strained, that they sometimes fight like brothers, but that neither one is ready to dissolve the partnership and no change is imminent.

Kelly called "total BS" on an NBC report that he has repeatedly called Trump an "idiot," saying they have an "incredibly candid and strong relationship." But the fact that the account was leaked to the network by four unnamed sources clearly shows that some in Trump's orbit are out to get Kelly.

Lewandowski is not part of that effort and has managed to forge a working relationship with the chief of staff.

Trump and Lewandowski discussed a possible senior White House post a year ago, shortly before Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff. But the president concluded that the timing wasn't right.

Of course, Kelly may get past the "idiot" flap, repair his relations with Trump and stay on. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has denied that he is being considered for the vacancy at VA, which would provide a soft landing.

If Kelly goes and Lewandowski doesn't get the nod, it's certainly possible that Trump won't hire a chief of staff, or give someone the title in name only. He still has no communications director, two months after Hope Hicks announced her resignation.

The consensus in the White House is that Budget Director Mick Mulvaney or House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would be a more likely replacement, although perhaps as more of an ambassador to the outside world than someone running the gears of government.

Trump's recent moves in hiring John Bolton and Larry Kudlow, who have broad independence, suggest the president is more at ease with a loose structure of trusted confidantes that mirrors the way he ran his real estate business.

What's clear is that Lewandowski, whatever his title or lack thereof, is going to be one of those voices.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author "Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth." Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.