This is random to the point of weirdness, but still somewhat less weird than Trump’s out-of-left-field decision to appoint Haley to the position two years ago. She’d been a Trump critic through the primaries and even swiped at him in her State of the Union rebuttal. And she had no diplomatic experience. He drafted a hostile Republican governor known for domestic policy and made her a key player on foreign policy in his administration.
But that decision had some strategy behind it. This one might too.
President Donald Trump is considering John James, a Michigan businessman who lost election to the U.S. Senate this year, to replace UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, according to two people familiar with the matter.
James tried to unseat Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, in a state that helped Trump win the presidency in 2016. He lost to the incumbent senator 46 to 52 percent. He’s now among the people Trump is considering to replace Haley, the former South Carolina governor who said in October she would resign by the end of the year, the people said…
James was at the White House last week talking about an administration post with Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, two people said.
The strategy behind Haley’s appointment was shrewd and Machiavellian. Trump and/or his advisors, especially nationalist ideologues like Steve Bannon, probably recognized that Haley would be a thorn in their side outside the administration. She’s a conservative, not a nationalist, and as a governor she would have been freer to criticize Trump than any of his conservative opponents in the Senate. (She was term-limited too, giving her even less reason to hold back.) She could have ended up rallying opposition to his policies among the conservative wing of the party, or what’s left of it. By bringing her into the administration, Trump avoided all that. With Haley on the team, the most prominent Republican in the country who’s hostile to him is probably, ahem, John Kasich, who isn’t rallying anyone on the right.
James’s appointment would be strategic in a different way. Like Haley, he has no diplomatic experience (although he did serve in Iraq). He’s never even held office, but performed impressively well in Michigan a few weeks ago against Debbie Stabenow. So why choose him? For two reasons, I think. One: James would owe Trump more than Haley would, since she had her own fan base within the party, so he’d be a more faithful messenger for the White House at the UN. Lots of stories have been written over the past two years about Haley articulating a traditional neoconservative anti-Russian foreign policy at the United Nations that often barely resembles her boss’s views. With James, Trump would worry less about his ambassador going rogue. That’s also why Heather Nauert is in the mix, I think. She came to the State Department from Fox to serve as a spokesman, which is what Trump wants at the UN after two years of Haley giving him headaches — a spokesman, someone who’ll faithfully relay his message instead of substituting their own.
The other reason to nominate James, whether to the UN post or some other administration job, is to raise his national profile in hopes of another run in Michigan. He came closer to winning a Senate seat there than any Republican has in years. Gary Peters, Michigan’s other senator, is a first-termer who’s up for reelection in 2020, when Trump will be on the ballot. And Trump ran well in Michigan two years ago, of course, cracking the blue wall and taking the state. A year as UN ambassador with his name in the news consistently might give James enough of a boost back home to get him over the top against Peters — although if that’s the plan, he’d need to be nominated and confirmed quickly to get a full year in before the 2020 campaign began. Maybe they’re thinking about him already as a potential challenger to Gretchen Whitmer for governor instead? She was just elected to her first term two weeks ago. James would have to wait four years.
Or maybe there’s no strategy. Maybe Trump just likes the guy. He’s formidable — West Point grad, veteran, successful businessman. And POTUS has been knocked around in the media some for having few black appointees in prominent administration positions. James would solve that problem.