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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Meet the latest recruit from central casting, where reality TV meets politics

Donald Trump's appointment of Heather Nauert as UN ambassador shows his disdain for multilateral institutions

Heather Nauert has been appointed US ambassador to the United Nations. Alex Brandon / AP
Heather Nauert has been appointed US ambassador to the United Nations. Alex Brandon / AP

The appointment of Washington’s new UN ambassador Heather Nauert reveals much about the politics within the Donald Trump administration and the trajectory of US foreign policy-making.

Mr Trump has always approached the presidency like a reality television producer, which was his most successful previous role. According to the New York Times, before taking office he even told his staff to consider every day of his administration to constitute an episode in which he ultimately vanquishes some opponent.

He was, after all, the simulacrum of a successful mogul on the television programme The Apprentice, one whose casino and hotels empire had repeatedly run into financial trouble and had been declared bankrupt several times. So this president is less interested in governing than in playing the role for the cameras and has even publicly referred to the White House as a “set”.

Consequently, Mr Trump has looked for new recruits – that is, supporting cast members – from, as he puts it, “central casting”. He wants people to “look the part”, as he imagines his viewers will as well.

There has always been a certain overlap between US television and the theatre of politics but under Mr Trump, those lines have become particularly blurred.

He has appointed a number of officials and senior aides from television, particularly from the Fox News channel, which has long supported him and, under his administration, all too often acts as a mouthpiece for the White House.

No programme has been more closely linked to Mr Trump than his favourite, the inane morning chat show Fox & Friends. Indeed, a number of studies have suggested that many of his more mysterious early morning tweets are directly prompted by the content of the show.

Now the link between this programme, its network and the administration has been greatly strengthened. Ms Nauert came to widespread attention as an anchor on that show, which led directly to her appointment, at the beginning of the administration, as the chief spokesperson for the State Department.

Blonde and attractive in the standard Fox News mould, Ms Nauert no doubt seemed straight out of Mr Trump’s vision of “central casting”, especially since she was unencumbered by any relevant diplomatic or administrative experience or expertise.

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But central casting can be unreliable. Former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson was, around the same time, nominated as Secretary of State, partly because of the recommendation of Republican bigwig James Baker and partly because Mr Trump thought he “looked the part”.

But Mr Tillerson did not share much of Mr Trump’s vision of “America First” and the two rapidly fell out. It was to Ms Nauert’s huge advantage that she was ostentatiously marginalised by Mr Tillerson and appeared more eager than him to defend the president’s policies.

But her appointment isn’t just a reward for loyalty and yet another snub to Mr Tillerson. It also indicates the growing bureaucratic power of national security adviser John Bolton.

Mr Bolton had his own favourite for the post, current US ambassador to Germany and far-right activist Richard Grenell. But Ms Nauert will suit his purposes admirably.

The appointment of such a relative nonentity to the UN position conveys precisely the kind of disdain for multilateral institutions that Mr Bolton has championed.

Moreover, she will be in no position whatsoever to challenge Mr Bolton’s command of US foreign policy and her media-centred and skimpy resume suggests the most she will be expected to do is defend other people’s policies on television.

Mr Trump, too, will certainly welcome having a relative lightweight in the UN post. His initial appointment of former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley emerged as a serious mistake within months.

Along with Vice President Mike Pence, she was one of two potential successors as president within the administration. And unlike the vice president, she proved willing to stake out her own path and even challenge the president when she found it politically useful.

By the time Mr Trump had to replace Mr Tillerson, Ms Haley had ruled herself out as a candidate because she had used her UN post to become too powerful and independent.

But Ms Haley was one of the most senior of Mr Trump’s initial appointees. Ms Nauert, by contrast, is shockingly junior, to the point that she might not even be part of the cabinet (the UN post being cabinet secretary level at the discretion of the president).

Such a move will not only reassure Mr Trump that there will be no repetition of Ms Haley’s independence and potential challenge, which remains plausible even after – or perhaps especially because of – her resignation. Demoting the status of the UN envoy to sub-cabinet level would also undoubtedly please Mr Bolton and his allies by sending a message to multilateral institutions that they are not worthy of such top-level representation.

Even if she does end up sitting in the cabinet, however, Ms Nauert’s appointment will strongly solidify Mr Bolton’s pre-eminence in foreign policy-making, typically in coordination with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And “America First” will continue its metamorphosis into America alone.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington