Trump Considers Diplomatic Novice for U.N. Ambassador

The U.S. president says State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert is under serious consideration.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a ministerial meeting on religious freedom in Washington on July 26. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a ministerial meeting on religious freedom in Washington on July 26. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is considering appointing Heather Nauert, a former Fox News anchor who serves as the State Department’s chief spokeswoman, as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, according to current and former State Department officials.

Trump said at a press conference Thursday that Nauert is “under very serious consideration” for the top U.N. job but that a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until next week. The White House declined to comment on the matter. The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, told reporters on Thursday that he had no information on the matter.

Nauert, who has limited experience in hands-on diplomacy, would replace Nikki Haley, who, in her first year on the job, emerged as one of the administration’s principal foreign-policy voices, eclipsing the camera-shy Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But Haley’s power seemed to diminish when Trump replaced Tillerson with Mike Pompeo this year and named John Bolton as his new national security advisor. Both men are viewed as close to Trump, and Bolton is a long-standing critic of the United Nations and its work.

“Like Haley, Nauert is likely to be one of the most prominent public articulators of administration policy, both domestically and internationally,” said Richard Gowan, a scholar at United Nations University. “The big question is whether she will have real clout in D.C. politics, as Haley did in her first year.”

It remains unclear whether the new ambassador would be granted cabinet status, a prerequisite for a major policymaking role alongside the president’s top national security advisors. The past three U.S. ambassadors to the U.N.—Haley, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice—have all been members of the cabinet.

But Republicans have traditionally denied that honor to their U.N. envoys. And Bolton, who lacked cabinet rank himself when he served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. more than a decade ago, has long argued against it. If Trump “reverts to the Republican norm of not having the U.N. ambassador in his cabinet, it will be a signal that the position has been downgraded,” Gowan said.

U.N.-based diplomats, who feared Trump might send an ideological warrior to represent him at Turtle Bay, said a Nauert appointment would be a relief.

“She’ll read her script well,” one U.N.-based diplomat said. “I think she will be effective in the sense of giving a high profile to the post.”

But other Washington insiders were skeptical that Nauert, who joined the State Department in April, 2017, could manage the job with her lack of foreign-policy experience.

“The job of representing our country in the complex corridors of power at the United Nations requires more experience in negotiations and knowledge of international law than Heather brings,” said Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and White House director of global engagement under the Obama administration.

“We need more than a smooth spokesperson,” he added. “We need a seasoned, steady, and strong voice who understands the subtleties of multinational diplomacy.”

Like Haley in her first days on the job, Nauert lacks experience in the byzantine ways of multilateral diplomacy. Current and former State Department officials say Nauert can step into the role smoothly only if she has a capable and experienced staff she can trust—to compensate for her lack of diplomatic experience. Haley, they say, is pushing to keep many of her staff on at the United Nations after her departure.

Nauert has a mixed legacy at the department, according to four current and former State Department officials who worked with Nauert.

She had to act as a bridge between Tillerson, the former secretary of state, and a White House he was often at odds with. While the White House communication staff suffered from chaos and instability in Trump’s first year, Nauert emerged as the administration’s steadiest public face, regularly defending its most controversial foreign-policy measures. Those included the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the president’s numerous tweets railing against U.S. allies.

“Those I know who work with her remark frequently that she is more open than most Trump appointees to listening to and working with career diplomats,” Bruen said.

While the president frequently blasted the news media and called journalists “enemies of the people,” Nauert was careful to avoid such language from the State Department podium. Human rights advocates have said the administration’s withering criticism of the media harms press freedom in autocracies around the world.

Nauert was one of only a handful of top appointees to remain at her post after Tillerson was fired in March. She served as acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from March through October, filling one of the many gaps in the department’s depleted ranks under Tillerson. Officials say Tillerson’s relationship was Nauert was tense—he was suspicious of her close ties with the White House and rarely brought her on his official visits abroad. But she has forged a closer relationship with Pompeo.

“Her real advantage is she’s a quick study and has close relationships with the power brokers in the White House,” said one former State Department official who worked with Nauert.

But officials also said the public affairs bureau she oversaw struggled under her management, lurching from one crisis to another—sometimes in response to the president’s bombshell tweets.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer