Staffers are especially keen to name a woman to Nikki Haley’s position with the midterms fast approaching and Trump polling at low levels among the female electorate. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Donald Trump’s aides are urging him to replace departing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley with another woman, hoping the move could help shore up support among female voters before the midterms, three people familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
Trump aides are fleshing out a list of female candidates with experience in the foreign policy arena after top pick Dina Powell, a Goldman Sachs executive and Trump administration alumna, withdrew her name from contention, citing her desire to remain close to her young kinds, according to two people familiar with Powell’s decision.
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The expanded list now includes Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, according to one Republican close to the White House, as well as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whom two senators, including close Trump friend Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), suggested as a good fit for the job, said two people briefed on the matter.
The added duo joins Kelly Knight Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, on the White House’s list of potential Haley replacements. Craft — who along with her husband, coal executive Joe Craft, are major Republican donors and are said to be close with Trump — was at the White House Thursday to discuss the job, according to an administration official. Outside advisers have also recommended Kay Bailey Hutchison, the current U.S. ambassador to NATO, although it’s unclear if she’s in contention for the job.
Staffers are especially keen to name a woman to the position with the midterms fast approaching and Trump polling at low levels among the female electorate, particularly after his second Supreme Court pick, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, faced allegations of sexual misconduct and assault.
“The political shop thinks it’s very important to announce a woman before Election Day because of the president’s approval rating and the Kavanaugh stuff,” said one source in regular contact with the president, although others added that pressure to appoint a woman is coming from across the White House.
GOP leaders say Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle energized the Republican base, but Trump’s current job approval rating among women, according to a Gallup survey released this month, stands at 30 percent. Twice as many women — 63 percent — disapprove of the president’s performance.
And while Trump bragged this week that “tremendous” amounts of women were pleased to see Kavanaugh confirmed, a CNN poll released Thursday showed a 20 percent increase since August in women who hold a negative view of the high court’s newest justice.
Republicans are already relying heavily on male voters to protect against major losses, but male turnout in previous midterm cycles suggests that losing large swaths of female voters would virtually hand the lower chamber to Democrats next month. In a study of voter turnout by gender in non-presidential elections, Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics found the percentage of female voters has exceeded men in every midterm cycle since 1986.
Still, Republicans aren’t convinced naming a female successor to Haley will have a meaningful impact on undecided women. One White House official said Trump “should pick the best person for the job because that’s what impresses Americans.”
“I don’t think anyone out there is going to be voting in 2018 based on the U.N. ambassador,” added a Senate GOP staffer.
Such skepticism, however, hasn’t stopped White House aides from stacking the president’s list of contenders with women. And selecting a nominee based on gender wouldn’t be the first time Trump has allowed criteria beyond experience and qualifications to guide his personnel decisions. The president reportedly wavered on hiring John Bolton as White House national security adviser earlier this year because he disliked his signature mustache. And Trump has regularly quipped about pulling aides and appointees, including Kavanaugh, straight from “central casting.”
When Haley resigned on Monday, Trump said she had made the U.N. ambassador job a “more glamorous position than it was two years ago.”
With Powell out of the running, it’s unclear who Trump thinks might be able to fill Haley’s shoes.
Brinker, who founded her breast cancer foundation in 1982, is a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. Notably, she has also known the Trump family for 35 years. She first met with the president when her late husband Norman Brinker and Trump’s father, Fred, were joint recipients of the Horatio Alger Award in 1985.
Though Brinker would be no stranger to the Senate confirmation process required for the position, she’d likely have to answer questions about several controversies surrounding her foundation work. Brinker stepped down as CEO of her foundation in 2012, shortly after the group cut off grants to Planned Parenthood, lost millions of its annual revenue, and reversed the decision. She came under scrutiny again in October 2016 as the foundation, where she remained involved despite her resignation, prepared to host its sixth annual “Pink Party” for breast cancer survivors at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.
“All I really have to say is that there hopefully are plenty of women in the mix being considered,” Brinker told POLITICO on Thursday. Asked about Haley’s departure, she said she was unsure “what qualifies as conversations” about the position and “would not discuss it” if she had been approached.
She added: “There are so many competent women that I can think of and I’m sure they will select the right list of candidates. I loved my service and always want to be in a position — whether it’s in the private sector or not — to serve my country.”
Ayotte would likely enter the race with the odds stacked against her, as she was a vocal critic of candidate Trump during the “Access Hollywood” scandal. But she came to Trump via glowing recommendations from former colleagues and in 2017 served as the sherpa for Justice Neil Gorsuch’s successful Supreme Court confirmation battle, potentially helping to heal her fractured relationship with the president.
Ayotte “is not angling for and hasn’t been formally approached,” said one person familiar with the situation.
Another source familiar with the matter demurred when asked about Graham’s involvement in pushing Ayotte.
“Graham played golf with Trump this weekend,” the person said.“They talk a lot on the golf course, but it’s not like any kind of organized campaign pushing anyone.”
Andrew Restuccia and Ben White contributed to this report.