nikki haley

Nikki Haley’s Skillful and Opportunistic MAGA Balancing Act

Nikki Haley is an impressively skillful opportunist in a treacherous GOP landscape. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the more interesting sideshows in the circus of Donald Trump’s presidency and his party has been the generally skillful efforts of former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley to play both sides of the road with respect to POTUS. It dates back to her ambivalent attitude toward Trump (implicitly a target of some of her remarks in the official Republican response to Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address) during the last presidential contest, when she, like most other Republicans, bent the knee when he won the nomination, but didn’t have much enthusiasm for him until he won the presidency.

Becoming Trump’s U.N. ambassador gave the very ambitious Haley the missing foreign-policy credential she needed for the future presidential run she is almost universally expected to make. And she made quite the show of promoting Trump’s image internationally while grandstanding now and then and generally elbowing her nominal boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, out of the spotlight. She quit in plenty of time to avoid the usual humiliation Trump puts his underlings through. But before then she found a deft way to keep her name in the back of everyone’s mind who might be wondering what will happen to the GOP after Trump — and maybe Mike Pence — are done, as I noted at the time:

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 …

[O]ne 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.”

Haley cleverly declared her independence from Trump even as she lionized him and his policies — and savaged his critics. It’s a manuever she has clearly mastered, as she has shown again in the new memoir she has published and in the vast attention it has gotten, as the New York Times’ Michelle Cottle acutely observes:

In “With All Due Respect,” Ms. Haley writes that Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, and John Kelly, then the White House chief of staff, considered some of Mr. Trump’s policies so harebrained that they ignored his directives and began recruiting other aides to derail his agenda.

“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” she writes. “Tillerson went on to tell me the reason he resisted the president’s decisions was because, if he didn’t, people would die.

Ms. Haley makes clear that what disturbed her was Mr. Tillerson’s and Mr. Kelly’s arrogance. “It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing.”

In interviews, Haley has then proceeded to follow the same script she used after the Anonymous op-ed:

[She began] lecturing her former colleagues on how they should have handled such disputes. “Instead of saying that to me, they should have been saying that to the president, not asking me to join them on their sidebar plan,” she said. “It should have been, go tell the president what your differences are and quit if you don’t like what he’s doing. But to undermine a president is really a very dangerous thing, and it goes against the Constitution and it goes against what the American people want. And it was offensive.”

So to the discerning consumer of Trumpian intrigue, Haley is acknowledging the chaos in this White House while saluting its chief chaos-maker, in the process throwing her old adversary Tillerson under the bus.

I watched a CBS Morning News feature on Haley during this saga, in which they rehashed the familiar hagiography of this crafty pol. The segment reflected a phenomenon I wrote about earlier this year when (largely ridiculous) rumors were circulating that she might replace Pence on the president’s 2020 ticket:

[P]eople who really don’t like Donald Trump, both within and beyond the GOP, have a habit of treating her as the potential leader of a more open-minded, open-hearted, and far less piggy Republican Party. Aside from her gender and ethnicity (she is an Indian-American), Haley has gotten probably more credit than she deserves for a too-late-to-be-courageous stand against a Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse, and for her occasional, minor acts of independence while representing Trump at the U.N.

Loyalty to Trump aside, Haley’s pre-hagiographical history has largely been forgotten, particularly by non-conservatives who think of her as a force for moderation:

[S]he came out of the hardcore conservative Sanford-DeMint wing of the South Carolina Republican Party. Among her first big national fans were Sarah Palin and Erick Erickson. As governor, she announced in her annual address to the legislature that she spurned capital investments from companies that tolerated unions. Earlier this year, she was the keynote speaker at the annual event of an extremist anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List. She’s no “moderate …”

But she is an effective opportunist. Not only did she get herself back into the news this week as a Trump loyalist who knows the White House is all screwed up; she almost certainly boosted her book sales, and gave her media fans a fresh occasion to recite her legend. Color me impressed.

Nikki Haley’s Skillful and Opportunistic MAGA Balancing Act