The White House is in discussions with former Michigan Senate candidate John James about the vacant United Nations ambassador post, with President Donald Trump leaning toward nominating the former businessman and Iraq War veteran, according to three people close to the process.
The talks have included frequent phone calls as Trump’s team searches for a new top diplomat after State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert withdrew herself from consideration for the post over the weekend, citing family concerns. Trump and James have not met in person since Nauert pulled her name, and it’s unclear if they have spoken by phone.
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A White House official said James, 37, was previously the “runner-up” for the position last December before Trump nominated Nauert. At the time, James met with several senior Trump administration officials, including the president, vice president and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. James is a “favorite” of Vice President Mike Pence, added a senior White House official, and has won a stamp of approval from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, both of whom are involved in deliberations.
James appeared on Fox News Wednesday afternoon in what some White House officials viewed as a formal audition for the role. He used the six-minute segment to pitch himself as an experienced businessman who could cut through the U.N. bureaucracy to deliver meaningful reforms, and also as someone who is willing to communicate the president’s “America First” vision. Trump has told advisers he wants someone in the job — recently downgraded from its Cabinet rank — who agrees with his foreign policy outlook and can be a ubiquitous presence on television.
“It’s an honor to be considered and I’m looking forward to getting the call should it come,” James told the network, touting his experience as a combat veteran and “someone who understands the growing spheres of communism around the world.”
Trump is also considering U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell for the position, according to the senior White House official. But two White House officials said Grenell, despite earning the president’s praise, is unlikely to land the job. The openly gay Trump administration official was just tapped to lead a global initiative against the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of developed countries, NBC reported on Tuesday.
James, who lost a race to unseat Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow last November, has long been discussed in GOP circles as a rising star in the Republican Party. A West Point graduate who helps runs a family-owned shipping business in Michigan, James drew several high-profile guests, including Trump, to stump for him in the final weeks before the 2018 midterm elections.
His closer-than-expected performance in 2018, along with his appeal among black communities — James is African-American — has some people close to the White House encouraging Trump to select a different person for the U.N. so that James can challenge Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan in 2020, according to a person familiar with those conversations.
“If he doesn’t get it this time, I don’t think it’s because they don’t like him, it’s because they want him to run again,” the person said.
An administration official said there “is a desire to find a big league position for” James but cautioned that the U.N. post “may not be the right fit” for him.
Nauert decided to withdraw her nomination last Friday in part because she believed her past employment of an au pair who wasn’t authorized to work in the U.S. would have further complicated the Senate confirmation process, sources familiar with her thinking previously told POLITICO.
Despite James’ popularity within the White House, some outside allies are worried that James may lack sufficient foreign policy experience, echoing a common critique of Nauert, who worked in broadcast journalism prior to joining the State Department in a senior communications role.
One person close to key U.S. senators said there are members who care deeply about the selection for this position and want to ensure the president’s eventual nominee is not untested in the foreign policy arena. Senate Democrats reacted with almost uniform dismay to Nauert’s nomination last year, claiming her loyalty to Trump should not supersede qualifications.
James would likely face similar pushback if nominated, even if some foreign policy experts insist that expertise in their field is not an absolute determiner of who can represent the U.S. well at the powerful international organization.
“Nikki Haley had very little foreign policy credentials before she did it and she did a great job,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation. “She was … a quick learner and she was a strong leader, and those were the most valuable credentials.”
“The one difference,” Carafano allowed, “is Haley had a lot of time in government. She knew how government operated [and] she started doing her homework on foreign policy issues well before she was up for the U.N. appointment.”
Like Nauert, James also has young children at home, potentially complicating a move to New York City, where the official U.N. headquarters is located. A source familiar with the process dismissed such concerns, noting that his wife is already at home full-time and that their three children are not school age yet.
Asked about the status of the U.N. search, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told POLITICO she had “nothing to announce at this time.”