In the span of 24 hours, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has done what none of her colleagues in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet have before: successfully telegraphed to her boss that she will not quietly suffer his public humiliations.
Haley was initially blamed by White House aides for creating confusion by speaking on national television about the administration’s plans to roll out new sanctions against Russia that the president ultimately decided to defer.
But within hours of White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s statement Tuesday that Haley had fallen prey to “momentary confusion” and gotten “out ahead of the curve,” she’d exacted a public apology from her colleague. That alone wasn’t enough for the former South Carolina governor, who issued a direct statement to make her point crystal clear: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
The incident has met with silence from the president and his loyalists but has only helped to burnish Haley’s image outside of the White House.
“She’s been a very forceful advocate and I would hope the administration really values that. She stood up for herself admirably, so hopefully that will end the story there,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Wednesday.
While Trump favorites like Defense Secretary James Mattis have been careful always to air their disagreements with the president in private, Haley has at times charted her own path in public.
Early in her tenure, she called Russian meddling into the 2016 election an act of “warfare.” Months later, as Trump was facing criticism over his dismissive response to women who were accusing Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of assault, she was candid in her view that the women who accuse men, including the president himself, of sexual misconduct “should be heard.”
Some of these incidents have infuriated the president, who has nevertheless maintained a friendly relationship with Haley while griping to associates behind her back.
But with a reshuffled foreign affairs team—in the last month, Trump has brought in John Bolton as his new national security adviser and tapped CIA director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, as well as bringing in Kudlow to advise on trade as well as other economic affairs—Haley is likely to see her internal standing improve.
While she routinely clashed with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former oilman, she sees eye-to-eye with Pompeo, a hawkish former congressman, on most national security issues.
She established a working relationship with Bolton, himself a former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush who helped prepare her for her confirmation hearings in late 2016, and has echoed his criticisms of the organization.
“I know John Bolton well. I have gotten advice from him, I have talked to him. I know his disdain for the U.N. I share it,” Haley told students at Duke University earlier this month — a remark Bolton relayed gleefully to associates.
As for her working relationship with the president, by the end of the day Wednesday, Haley swooped in to put a final point on the week’s mess, telling reporters in New York it is “perfect.”
From the outset of the administration, Haley has been one of its most visible spokesmen on foreign affairs, outshining the media-shy Rex Tillerson and now, with Mike Pompeo awaiting Senate confirmation, serving as Trump’s de facto secretary of state.
But the sanctions episode is a stark reminder that this president has little compunction about letting his top staffers and appointees dangle. As the White House scrambled to explain the president’s change of heart on issuing Russia sanctions, Haley became a convenient target for West Wing aides working to smooth a ragged decision making process without blaming the president himself.
Before Kudlow took a public shot at her, the White House said that while the president signed off on sanctions legislation last week, the announcement was delayed because the Treasury Department did not have the legislation ready. Yet the White House itself sent talking points to surrogates on Saturday, the day before Haley’s Sunday-show appearance.
Haley is far from the first Trump aide who’s spoken on the administration’s behalf only to have the president undermine them — and while the latest incident has boosted her public profile, it isn’t clear whether the president will be more careful to keep on her side going forward, or vice versa.
“At the center of the story, this incident will raise questions as to whether she’s speaking for the administration when she speaks at the United Nations,” said Ely Ratner, who served as deputy national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden. “That’s something that has haunted Cabinet-level officials since the beginning of the administration.”
Indeed, after Tillerson announced in December that he was seeking talks with the North Korean government, Trump torpedoed the idea, dismissing it as a waste of time.Then, in March, Tillerson—traveling overseas—said that the U.S. was “a long ways” from direct talks with North Korea, only to have the president agree the next day offer to hold a direct summit with dictator Kim Jong Un.
Trump chastised his former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, for his failure to tell a German audience that Russian interference in the 2016 election did not impact the results — something that McMaster, an active-duty military offer, was careful to avoid.
Haley’s advocates on Capitol Hill were not happy to see the Trump administration wipe away Haley’s declaration, worried a trend could develop that has the rest of the world doubting her words.
“It doesn’t help her credibility if, whenever she gets out there and is articulating the administration and the United States’ position, to have somebody undercut that,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader.