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Donald Trump announces more personnel changes in top circle of aides

US President Donald Trump started his day with more criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election
Jim WATSON (AFP)
Trump reliant on a reduced group of key advisers as he prepares for fresh opposition in the new year.

After announcing a new attorney general and a new ambassador to the UN on Friday, the US President made another spat of personnel changes on Saturday.

The president took to Twitter to name General Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He later announced the departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was scheduled for "before the end of the year".

Mark Milley's appointment as what is basically Trump's top military advisor is a new slap in the face for Pentagon chief Jim Mattis.

Milley, a four-star general who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, would replace General Joseph Dunford as the military's next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Drew Anthony Smith (Getty/AFP)

Dunford is scheduled to retire in October 2019 at the end of his second two-year term, but there are signs that he might leave earlier.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is made up of the heads of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and National Guard. Mattis reportedly favored Air Force General David Goldfein.

After meeting with both Milley and Goldfein, it seems that Trump preferred the army general, who was more outgoing than the cerebral Air Force chief, and laced his discussions with humor and historical references.

The Pentagon's reaction to the announcement was somewhat frosty.

Mattis was once a favorite of Trump, but the two men have had increasing difficulties in recent months.

They haven't seen eye to eye over the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from over Mattis' objections; over the creation of a Space Force, which Mattis did not want; and over the crisis at the US-Mexico border, and the deployment of troops there.

JIM WATSON (AFP/Archives)

- Trump's inner circle shrinks as he prepares for battle -

The Kelly departure was hastily announced on Friday, in what some Democrats suggested might have been an attempt to distract from troubling legal filings from the special counsel investigating Russian meddling.

US President Donald Trump on Saturday announced his chief of staff John Kelly will soon be leaving the administration, the latest key personnel move at a time of mounting pressure from the Russia election-meddling probe that comes amid increased focus on preparing for the 2020 elections.

Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, was long rumored to be on the way out, amid reports that his relationship with the volatile Trump had deteriorated to such an extent they were no longer on speaking terms.

Prosecutors said Trump had directed his lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal payments to two women to silence allegations of sexual affairs.

The Kelly news reportedly was originally scheduled for Monday before the president made the impromptu announcement, speaking to reporters on the White House lawn.

"John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year," Trump said before heading to Philadelphia for the annual Army-Navy football game. "I appreciate his service very much."

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Nick Ayers, the 36-year-old chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is widely touted to be Trump's favorite to succeed Kelly.

For all his youth, Ayers is said to have the political savvy -- crucial as Trump plots a path to the 2020 election -- that Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, lacked.

When Kelly, 68, was tabbed in July 2017 to replace chief of staff Reince Priebus, he inherited a White House plagued by political intrigue and internal disorder, and under a cloud because of the allegations of collusion with Russia.

Kelly is credited with bringing some discipline to the Oval Office.

When he took up his post, for example, the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner was reportedly holding regular informal conversations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Kelly insisted on returning to past practice requiring a member of the National Security Council to take part in all calls with foreign leaders.

The impending departure leaves Trump reliant on a reduced group of key advisers even as he prepares to deal in the new year with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The opposition party will have the power to launch investigations, issue subpoenas, and generally make his life more difficult.

Staff changes are normal at the midpoint in a president's term, though Trump's penchant for drama and for announcing personnel on Twitter have added to a sense of ferment and uncertainty.

The president said last month he was considering changing up to five senior advisers, even while insisting that his administration was "running like a well-oiled machine."

He has expressed unhappiness with Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, saying, "I would like her to be much tougher on the border (with Mexico). Much tougher."

Trump also shunted a deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, out of that position after first lady Melania Trump issued a rare public criticism, reportedly peeved with Ricardel's involvement in the First Lady's Africa trip.

And last month he sacked Jeff Sessions, after repeatedly launching personal -- and very public -- attacks on the former head of the Justice Department for failing to protect him from the Mueller probe.

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