President Donald Trump's two most high-profile diplomats, Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, were with him at a meeting with African leaders here this week when the president took the lectern to offer a big reveal.

He had decided to dispatch one of them to a new on-the-ground peace mission in violence-plagued South Sudan and Congo.

"I'm sending Ambassador Nikki Haley," Trump declared of his administration's United Nations representative.

United States President Donald Trump speaks with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley before a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Photo / AP
United States President Donald Trump speaks with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley before a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Photo / AP

That the president gave the nod to Haley and not Tillerson - the secretary of state who outranks her as a member of the Cabinet - was not necessarily evidence, in and of itself, that she was upstaging him.

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But Haley's prominence at Trump's side through four days of meetings at the annual UN General Assembly this week continued a rapid and remarkable rise for the former South Carolina governor, and highlighted her growing influence and ambition within an administration struggling to project a coherent foreign policy.

As Trump made his debut in the global spotlight, he was accompanied nearly as often by Haley as by administration officials like Tillerson who are technically higher in the pecking order. Back in Washington, Haley's rising profile has led to speculation that she would be a potential replacement for Tillerson if the increasingly isolated State Department chief to step aside.

Haley has vehemently rejected the idea, saying repeatedly she is not considering such a move and that Tillerson is not planning to leave.

"There's going to be chatter about things," she said at a press briefing when asked about speculation on her future.

"What I'm trying to do is do a good job," she said. "I'm trying to serve the president and the country the best I can. If people want to take it as anything else, that's not something I spend time on."

It's not that Tillerson was missing in action here; he also accompanied Trump to numerous events and held meetings with foreign delegations, including blunt discussions with the Iranians over Trump's sharp criticism of the U.N.-backed nuclear deal. The president appears to be leaning toward declaring Tehran in violation of the agreement before a certification deadline next month.

But it was Haley and National Security Adviser HR McMaster, not Tillerson, who previewed the trip for reporters in the White House briefing room. And it was Haley who introduced Trump at the UN's opening session on internal reforms, touting his "businessman's eye" for seeing potential in the world body that Trump had criticized as ineffectual during his campaign.

To outside observers, the differences between Haley, a former politician, and Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, have been stark. Though she came to the job with virtually no foreign policy experience, Haley has worked hard to establish relationships with foreign officials and journalists, while Tillerson has exhibited a sense of isolation within his own department and has kicked most of the State Department reporters off his government jet.

"Nikki is a politician and has worked as a politician her whole life," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, global risk assessment firm. "She's more flexible and willing to be charismatic. The lack of experience has not hurt her."

U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley address the United Nations Security Council, during the U.N. General Assembly. Photo / AP
U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley address the United Nations Security Council, during the U.N. General Assembly. Photo / AP

Haley's influence within the administration has emerged in surprising ways for a onetime critic of Trump, whose foreign policy and national security views hewed to mainstream conservatism.

She is an interpreter for Trump's "America First" agenda at the UN and has become a frequent presence on political talk shows, emerging as the loudest administration voice, outside the president himself, in criticising the Iran deal. Despite nearly universal support for the Iran deal among her U.N. colleagues, Haley has become the megaphone for Trump's deep suspicions about the landmark agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

She has advised Trump about how he could back away from the deal next month on grounds she can defend at the UN, people familiar with the matter said.

"This situation is not an easy situation by any means," she said, citing past nuclear-related deals with North Korea that were violated as Pyongyang acquired nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. "Here we are again. We do not want to be dealing with the next North Korea."

It was Haley who spearheaded US efforts to convince the United Nations to enact two recent rounds of tough new economic sanctions on North Korea. The task required some tricky diplomacy with China and Russia, and won admiration among important US allies.

At the same time, her contention during a Security Council session that North Korea is "begging for war" provoked a round of eye-rolling from foreign diplomats who interpreted her comments as a needlessly bellicose echo of Trump's amped-up language.

But she has made an impression at the United Nations, joking about using her high heels to kick opponents in the shin. And for a Trump administration that has been criticized for a lack of minorities and general hostility to foreigners, Haley, the American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, offers a prominent public face of diversity.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, left whispers to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a high level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations. Photo / AP
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, left whispers to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a high level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations. Photo / AP

She is widely viewed as within the GOP as a future presidential candidate.

Tillerson, by contrast, has found himself on the losing side of key internal policy arguments, most notably over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

Analysts said Haley would pursue a different course at State than Tillerson, who has focused on cutting the budget and the bureaucracy in the name of efficiency.

"That's not what Nikki would do," Bremmer said. "But she would be a more capable spokesperson for the Trump administration's foreign policy."

Haley turned down the top diplomatic job previously, weeks after Trump's surprise election victory last year. She told CNN this month that said she did not think herself well enough versed in foreign policy. The president returned to her the following month offering the U.N. position.

The job has provided her a Cabinet-level post that is out of the daily political combat in Washington.

Haley's fierce denunciation of what she calls systemic bias against Israel at the U.N. has made her the darling of Israeli hawks and raised her star with pro-Israel American Republicans.

"When you have a former politician at the U.N., it's an advantage," said Israeli U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon, also a former politician. "When you know how to get things done, when you know the practical aspects I think it's a difference and it's better."

After Haley on Thursday professed not to worry about public talk about her ambitions, a reporter followed up: "Do you want to be secretary of state?"

"No, I do not," Haley replied.