Nauert’s Pick as U.N. Envoy Hints at Downgrading of the Role
Posted December 7, 2018 8:42 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump confirmed Friday that he would nominate Heather Nauert, a former “Fox & Friends” host who has served as the State Department spokeswoman since last year, to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations and help promote an “America First” foreign policy that has at times rankled some of the country’s leading allies.
Nauert has impressed Trump with her fierce advocacy and telegenic presence, while earning the trust of the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Nauert “has done a great job” at the State Department, Trump said in making his announcement. “She’s very talented, very smart, very quick, and I think she’s going to be respected by all,” he said.
But she would bring less experience in government or international affairs to the high-profile job than almost anyone who has held it, generating instant skepticism that may complicate her Senate confirmation.
If confirmed, Nauert may serve more as a public face for the administration than as a policymaker, leaving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, to dominate decision-making back in Washington. Many in Washington saw the appointment as a way for Bolton to consolidate power.
Unlike Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who, with her own political stature and ambitions, occasionally spoke out in variance to the president’s talking points, officials expect Nauert to hew closer to the administration line. The White House would not say whether the position will retain Cabinet rank, as it did with Haley and many of her predecessors, but few expect it to.
Ambassadors to the U.N. typically fit one of two models — either longtime foreign policy hands like Thomas Pickering, Richard Holbrooke and Zalmay Khalilzad, or politicians of stature like Henry Cabot Lodge, Adlai Stevenson and George Bush. Nauert fits neither model, having spent her career in television journalism until joining the State Department in April 2017.
“The reality is that is a complex, important, substantive job,” said Susan E. Rice, who held the post under President Barack Obama. “It is not a press job. It’s not a job for a glorified spokesperson.” The ambassador needs to “go toe to toe every day with the Russians and the Chinese,” she added, “and it’s not evident to me that she has the background that equips her to step into that job and hit the ground running.”
But John Negroponte, who had the job under President George W. Bush, said that Nauert was well versed in the administration’s foreign policy and seemed to have good relations with Pompeo and the White House, vital for the job. “She’s had total immersion in the day-to-day issues,” he said.
Colleagues from her cable news days said she was among the more serious reporters who appeared on Fox News’ morning lineup. “It’s no more unusual than a businessman ending up as president,” said Greta Van Susteren, a former Fox anchor. “She’s smart, she’s traveled the world, and she can talk to people, and that’s essentially what we need at the U.N.” Nauert would not be the first television journalist to be sent to the United Nations. President Richard Nixon appointed John A. Scali, an ABC News correspondent, to be his special consultant for foreign affairs and communications in 1971 and then two years later made him ambassador to the United Nations.
At the time, there was criticism, but Scali had spent years covering foreign affairs and even played a crucial role as a secret intermediary between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Nauert is one of numerous television personalities with roles in Trump’s as-seen-on-TV administration. Bolton was a Fox contributor, and Bill Shine, a former Fox co-president, serves as deputy chief of staff. Larry Kudlow, a longtime CNBC host, stars as the president’s chief economic adviser.
Nauert, 48, had to overcome a steep learning curve and a rocky relationship with her first boss, Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, who viewed her as a White House spy and did not take her on many trips. She repeatedly talked about quitting. But she developed a bond with Tillerson’s successor, Pompeo, who has promoted her within, and some former colleagues said she was a hard worker and quick study.
She is also a favorite of Ivanka Trump and Kushner, who pushed for her selection. “Heather is smart, strong and strategic,” Trump said in a statement. “We are grateful for her continued service to our nation and administration.”
Critics were less generous, pointing to gaffes during her State Department tenure. On a trip to Saudi Arabia in October, Nauert posted on Instagram a smiling selfie outside a government complex in Riyadh, a discordant image given that the purpose of the visit was to discuss the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In June, Nauert tried to praise the partnership between Germany and the United States, a standard diplomatic platitude. But she cited the Normandy invasion on D-Day — in which Allied troops battled German forces — as a high-water mark in the two nations’ history, prompting mockery from liberal commentators. Nauert spent her early years trying to gain a foothold in television, hosting a local country music program and appearing on an obscure conservative cable network. After graduating from Mount Vernon College in Washington, she worked as a lobbyist for insurance companies like the one owned by her father.
But while she later transitioned into reporting — and had a stint at ABC News as a national correspondent — she got her break in punditry as a reliable and energetic advocate for mainstream Republican doctrine. The Washington Post declared her “the new face of the talking head” in a 2000 profile that quoted Shine, then a Fox executive producer, who said her onscreen energy “could bring in younger people.”
In 2001, Nauert, then attending Columbia Journalism School, found herself in a class taught by Al Gore. Fox producers enlisted her to provide regular dispatches on Gore’s lectures, which she delivered in prime time as hosts like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly mocked the former vice president.
The appearances led to a permanent role at the network. Nauert was never elevated to the anchor chair, though, and former colleagues said she was feeling stymied when the State Department job came up.
Taking away the Cabinet ranking that many former U.N. ambassadors have been given would suggest that the position was being downgraded.
“Not being a Cabinet member reinforces the idea that she was probably chosen to help explain the administration policy to external audiences rather than to be a force for policymaking internally,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an ambassador to NATO under Obama.
But other veteran diplomats said it would restore a more orderly chain of command that would appropriately leave the policymaking to Washington rather than seeming to create a competing power center at the United Nations.
“Heather Nauert’s appointment to the U.N. may roil waters of the traditional diplomatic establishment,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But paradoxically it resets the traditional power balance — pre-Haley — where the secretary of state and White House will be the only dominant voices in foreign policy.”