Trump’s U.N. Envoy Post Is Up for Grabs Again

Heather Nauert’s withdrawal has opened doors to a new cast of diplomatic aspirants seeking to fill Nikki Haley’s shoes.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, at a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York on Sept. 26, 2018. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, at a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York on Sept. 26, 2018. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With the abrupt withdrawal of his intended pick, U.S. President Donald Trump is back to searching for a new ambassador to the United Nations. Four leading contenders, included two current U.S. ambassadors, have emerged as favorites in the competition for a job that has been steadily diminished by a president who routinely spurns multilateralism.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman and former Fox News anchor, announced on Saturday that she was withdrawing from consideration for the U.N. ambassador post, citing strains on her family and as reports emerged of a potential problem in her background regarding the employment of a nanny who was legally in the United States but not authorized to work. 

“Nauert voluntarily disclosed the issue to investigators and is in compliance with the law,” a U.S. official told Foreign Policy.

Now, four figures are in the mix as the White House scrambles to find a replacement: Kelly Craft, the current U.S. ambassador to Canada and wife to a prominent Republican fundraiser and billionaire coal executive; Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and former spokesman at the U.N. for then-Ambassador John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor; Dina Powell, a partner at Goldman Sachs and former senior member of Trump’s national security staff; and John James, a former Republican Senate candidate in Michigan and U.S. Army veteran.

Grenell, Trump’s diplomat-turned-political firebrand in Berlin, has riled one of America’s closest allies in Europe by counseling its companies to halt business with Iran over European directives and expressing a desire to “empower” European conservatives—breaking with the tradition of foreign diplomats remaining neutral in domestic politics abroad.

But he has emerged as a favorite among Trump’s right flank, with expressions of support from former White House spokesman Sean Spicer, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and Sebastian Gorka, a former Breitbart contributor and White House aide.

“Ric Grenell needs to be recalled and nominated forthwith for the U.N. post,” Gorka told Breitbart. “He has been the president’s most effective ambassador bar none. The best thing about his nomination is that with his rock solid MAGA credentials the globalist America-haters at the U.N. will be put on notice,” he said, referring to Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Craft’s name emerged following her positioning in Ottawa after the grueling trade negotiations on the so-called U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. “She took a really strong leadership position on USMCA,” one U.S. official said. The official also said Craft is close to the president’s senior advisors, particularly Jared and Ivanka Trump, and has good relationships on Capitol Hill.  

Powell’s name was first floated last year after Haley announced her resignation, but at that time, she turned down the job offer. James, who lost a Senate bid in Michigan in 2018, is still seen as a rising star in the Republican political landscape, though he lacks the diplomatic credentials past U.N. ambassadors have had.

But irrespective of who Trump picks, Nikki Haley’s successor is likely to inherit a largely diminished role, as officials say the job is expected to be stripped of its cabinet-level status, which gave Haley a seat at the table with the president’s top national security team.

In the course of two years, Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went from being one of the most influential foreign-policy voices in the Trump administration—an unexpected diplomatic force who prodded China into imposing harsh sanctions on North Korea—to something of a lame duck, both in Washington and New York.

In her final weeks in office, Haley fought, and lost, battles to block the appointments of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the U.N. special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, a position that was filled for the first time by a Chinese diplomat, Huang Xia.

The latest setbacks have underscored the degree to which the United States is losing ground to rivals in international institutions. Trump’s foreign-policy advisors who made the decision to “beat a righteous retreat” from multilateralism are now finding that the playing field more favorable to America’s competitors, said Stephen Pomper, the director of the International Crisis Group’s U.S. program. “Now they have to figure a way to take some of that ground back.”

“The longer there isn’t an ambassador here, the more there will be a sense of American drift and the more this will play to the favor of other powers, such as China and Russia, who have been telling other diplomats that the U.S. has left the building and it’s time to recalibrate their alliances in New York,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at United Nations University.

“Bolton has been the weathermaker on multilateral affairs in this administration since early 2018. As long as you have Bolton sitting in Washington, then whoever represents the United States at the U.N. will fall under his shadow,” he added.

“Haley had an astonishing early run in 2017 largely because there was no one else making foreign policy for the U.S.,” Gowan said. “Haley’s early success gave the false impression of how much this job matters in this administration.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Nauert has served as a spokeswoman at the State Department for nearly two years. She also briefly served as acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the wake of the firing of Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and several of his senior advisors, last year.

“[T]he past two months have been grueling for my family and therefore it is in the best interest of my family that I withdraw,” Nauert said in a statement released by the State Department on Saturday. She said serving in the Trump administration “has been one of the highest honors of my life,” suggesting she will be stepping down from her role at the department.

The statement came within hours of Bloomberg News reporting that the White House was flagged with a potential issue in her background: She had employed an immigrant as a nanny who was legally in the United States but not authorized to work. (Trump, meanwhile, has reportedly employed undocumented immigrants at his golf clubs.)

The Washington Post reported that Nauert voluntarily disclosed the issue to investigators, which the U.S. official who spoke to Foreign Policy confirmed.

Nauert faced criticism from Democratic lawmakers and some experts over her lack of diplomatic experience. The U.N. ambassador post is a role that has historically been reserved for some of Washington’s most seasoned diplomats. But officials said Nauert maintained a strong relationship with the White House, even as tensions between Trump and her former boss, Tillerson, took a plunge before his firing a year ago. Officials said she also quickly impressed her new boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when he came to Foggy Bottom, and he fully supported her bid for the U.N. job.

Trump lauded her as “very talented, very smart, very quick” in December, when he vowed to nominate her for the job. But the formal nomination never came, and her paperwork was never sent to the Senate to start the confirmation process—perhaps in part due to the lengthy government shutdown that came shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Update Feb. 19, 2019: This article was updated to include additional information on Nauert.

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

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

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