Less than two years ago, Heather Nauert was conducting interviews on “Fox & Friends.” Now, she’s preparing to navigate the world’s raging geopolitical issues as one of America’s top diplomats.
It’s an unexpected journey for a potential United States ambassador to the United Nations — Nauert has no diplomatic experience aside from her year and a half as State Department spokesperson, a job she got with little background in global affairs. But under the Trump administration, unusual pathways to top positions have become typical. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Energy Secretary Rick Perry both assumed posts overseeing agencies they admittedly knew little about. And there’s a team of supporters both in and out of the government working to convince lawmakers — and the public — that Nauert will be up to the task once her nomination is officially submitted to the Senate next year.
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Still, the U.N. is an especially byzantine organization, foreign policy experts say, a smorgasbord of cultures and customs governed by entrenched diplomatic protocols.
Nauert, said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “is very well-informed about any issue senators are likely to ask about, but what she’s not experienced in is the political give-and-take she’ll need to negotiate compromises at the U.N.”
So the work now begins to ready Nauert for a nomination hearing early next year, where the former TV host will face hostile Democrats and a few skeptical Republicans not yet convinced she has the foreign policy chops to do the job. In addition to planning rounds of briefings and mock hearing sessions, Nauert’s backers — including some other ambassadors — have been reaching out to reporters to effusively praise her.
“If you consider what she’s seen in the last year-and-a-half, she’s probably got the equivalent of four or five MBAs in international relations,” Woody Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, said in an interview.
Nauert would be stepping into the role at a time of global upheaval: The U.S. and China are locked in a trade dispute that threatens to upend diplomatic relations; North Korea has been caught building out its missile bases as denuclearization talks with the U.S. have slowed; a revanchist Russia continues saber-rattling in Eastern Europe; and President Donald Trump has alienated military experts and many in his party with unexpected decisions to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan.
Lawmakers will grill Nauert on each of these issues, and are sure to pounce on any perceived lack of knowledge.
To prepare, Nauert is expected to sit through a series of briefings on trade and global hot spots and could begin murder-board sessions shortly after the new year, which will be handled by the State Department and the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, according to two sources familiar with the process.
Nauert declined to comment for this story.
She and her team will pull from the same playbook outgoing U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley used to prepare for her own hearing: sitting for 90-minute practice hearings, where individuals posing as senators quiz the nominee on their top issues, and absorbing loads of take-home reading. Administration officials are also considering ways to help familiarize Nauert with the arcane politics of the world’s largest intergovernmental organization, one current official told POLITICO.
“As governor of South Carolina, Haley did not know a lot of foreign policy … but she was very much prepared for the work of a U.N. ambassador in the sense that the U.N. General Assembly is very much like a political body. Nauert seems to me like the inverse of that,” said Abrams, who belonged to the team that prepared Haley for her confirmation hearing in January 2017.
The U.S. Mission to the U.N. will similarly buttress Nauert’s prep work, offering written and in-person briefings on its work and how the U.N. functions, a separate State Department official said. Nauert is also expected to work closely with Mary Elizabeth Taylor, former deputy director of nominations for the White House legislative affairs shop who now works at State, in addition to getting her own sherpa to act as a guide during the confirmation process. If Nauert is confirmed, her job will likely be downgraded to a non-Cabinet position, meaning she would report to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an effort to clarify the chain of command.
Then there’s the emerging public lobbying campaign. Other Trump ambassadors are making the case that Nauert has been a quick study during her 20 months on the job at State.
In one case, according to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Nauert set up a meeting during a visit to Israel “with a sampling of the most aggressive local reporters from the left and right, and she sat with me while I fielded questions so she could observe what was on their minds and how to respond.” Still, Friedman cautioned, it’s unrealistic to expect any nominee to possess “an encyclopedic command of the entire world.”
When Trump tapped Nauert for the U.N. post in early December, the Republican foreign policy class did not exactly jump to her defense. Before her time at State, Nauert had mostly worked as a broadcast journalist, making two stops at Fox News with a brief on-air role at ABC News in between.
“There is no rationale for the president to put forth Nauert’s name,” Harry Kazianis, a self-described Republican and director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, wrote in a Dec. 8 op-ed, arguing that she lacks “any diplomatic experience or top-level expertise on global affairs.”
“I most certainly think she has the ability to do the job well. Does she have the knowledge of foreign policy to a level that will allow her to be successful at the United Nations? I don’t know,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told CBS’s “Face the Nation” the next day.
And Democrats almost categorically dismissed Nauert the moment her name was floated.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested Nauert was only a candidate for the job because her résumé included Fox News — the president’s favorite network. “She is clearly not qualified for this job, but these days it seems that the most important qualification is that you show up on Donald Trump’s TV screen,” Murphy told CNN.
Others pointed to prior comments and actions activists said were anti-Muslim, including several segments she hosted on Fox News. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, opposed her nomination, describing Nauert as “unqualified and Islamaphobic.”
But Nauert also is one of the few prominent Trump administration officials who has tried to raise awareness of the slaughter of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. And she’s spoken out in support of Syria’s White Helmets, a team of volunteers that helped evacuate civilians from hot spots in the war-torn country. In both cases, however, critics say Nauert didn’t do enough.
Nauert will have a chance to meet with her skeptics on Capitol Hill in the weeks before her hearing, which has yet to be scheduled and might not come until after the Senate considers the nomination of attorney general hopeful William Barr, according to a White House official. Nauert is expected to sit down with members of the Foreign Relations Committee to review any concerns about her nomination, preview her testimony and gain a sense of what they might ask about when she appears before the Senate panel.
“I’m guessing she’s so high-profile that every member will want to meet with her,” said one of the sources familiar with the process. “Democrats will be a little more guarded, but some will say ‘these are the three areas I really care about and I want you to be prepared to answer questions about them’.”
“Others will meet with you, smile, and then hit you with a two-by-four when you come before the committee,” the person added.
Other Nauert defenders — who also include the cast of “Fox & Friends,” and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — are quick to point out that the ex-Fox News host wouldn’t be the first former journalist to hold the top diplomatic post. And Nauert has also reported from Jordan, Iraq, Sudan and Europe, as noted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed supporting her appointment.
Indeed, ABC correspondent John Scali served as U.N. ambassador during the Nixon administration, and Haley’s predecessor, Samantha Power, worked for several papers in the 1990s. However, the situations aren’t exactly comparable. Scali spent decades covering diplomacy and traveling the world for ABC before entering government, while Power worked as a war correspondent and later won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing on foreign affairs prior to assuming her post.
Those who know Nauert say she’s up to the task and buoyed by the confidence in her that Trump and Pompeo have already shown. “She wants to be able to fill Nikki’s shoes,” said a source close to the State Department spokeswoman.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.