The reaction of most Trump administration notables to the insta-crisis set off by the president’s anonymous inside critic who penned a New York Times op-ed confessing sabotage against the boss’ less savory wishes has been nearly as interesting as the op-ed itself. The president, of course, has thrown temper tantrums on Twitter that make you shiver at the rage he must be expressing privately:
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was so agitated she began deploying Trump-like language instead of acting as his ambassador to the normal world of discourse:
“The media’s wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward is tarnishing the reputation of thousands of great Americans who proudly serve our country and work for President Trump. Stop,” press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote in a Thursday statement.
One by one, White House and Cabinet officials rushed to deny they were the author of the op-ed. But they seemed hunted and haunted by the speculation:
Finally, one administration figure came forward who seemed to understand perfectly how to deal with the crisis: by using it to benefit herself. Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations wrote her own op-ed, for the Washington Post, dressing down the anonymous deep stater while suggesting he or she didn’t know Donald J. Trump at all:
I, too, am a senior Trump administration official. I proudly serve in this administration, and I enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction it is taking the country. But I don’t agree with the president on everything. When there is disagreement, there is a right way and a wrong way to address it. I pick up the phone and call him or meet with him in person.
She went on at some length in describing the White House as a place where everyone with true power has easy access to Trump. And she portrays the president as a man who listens patiently to dissenting views, which she had had occasion to offer on more than one occasion. The not-so-veiled suggestion, of course, is that Anonymous must be some self-aggrandizing schmo who has to pretend to be burrowing away at Trump’s designs because he or she can’t get within 100 yards of the Oval Office.
If the author truly is a senior administration official, then he or she has the kind of access to the president I described. If that is the case, this official has ample opportunity to try to persuade the president to change course. If the author is frustrated by an inability to persuade the president, then he or she is free to resign ….
To Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, I say: Step up and help the administration do great things for the country. If you disagree with some policies, make your case directly to the president …. But do not stay in your position and secretly undermine the president and the rest of our team. It is cowardly, it is anti-democratic, and it is a disservice to our country.
This was a pitch-perfect and well-timed gambit by Haley. She managed to suck up to Trump even in the act of declaring her independence from him. She positioned herself as both unshakably faithful to the boss, and as having enough clout to tell the president to his face when he is wrong, showing loyalty but earning respect. And most of all, she offered a repudiation of the impression of an administration in chaos that Anonymous asserted and Trump reinforced by his over-the-top–even for him–reaction.
This isn’t the first time Nikki Haley has shown impeccable timing in dealing with a crisis. She was elected governor of South Carolina in 2010 by very skillfully turning sexual smears against her into a plot by good-old-boy former Democrats to halt the conservative ideological revolution that she (as Mark Sanford’s heir apparent) offered. Her big national moment in the sun as governor occurred after the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, when she called for taking down the Confederate flag from the statehouse long after that position could rightly be described as brave. And as a junior member of the Trump administration in 2017, she exploited a vacuum in foreign policy development by all but setting policy on Syria at a crucial moment, with the president and the secretary of state following her lead. She has successfully transformed herself from the grim extremist who sought to bar unions from South Carolina into one of the more stable figures in an unstable administration.
Haley’s latest ploy shows this pattern is no accident. She is an opportunist of the highest order, and I mean that as a compliment. If there is a betting pool on her prospects for the 2024 national ticket, count me in.