Report

Nikki Haley Stuns Washington by Announcing Resignation From U.N. Post

President Trump’s United Nations ambassador dismisses speculation that she intends to challenge him in 2020.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to press at U.N. headquarters in New York on Jan. 2. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to press at U.N. headquarters in New York on Jan. 2. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had always seemed like the odd one out in the Trump administration.  

An Indian-American woman in a crowd of mostly white, male cabinet members. A potential, future political rival to a president who prizes loyalty and compliance above all.

And yet, she outlasted many of her colleagues, carving out a role in her first year as the president’s most visible foreign-policy voice.

On Tuesday, in a surprise Oval Office announcement, President Donald Trump said that Haley planned to step down by year’s end.

Seated beside the president, Haley didn’t exactly say why. But she quickly sought to preempt speculation she was leaving to mount a political challenge to the president in 2020, insisting instead that she would campaign on his behalf.

“I’m a believer in term limits, I think you have to be selfless enough to know when you step aside and allow someone else to do the job,” said Haley, a former governor of South Carolina. “Sometimes it’s good to rotate in other people who can put that same energy and power into it.”

Trump said he hoped Haley would return to serve in his administration. “You can have your pick,” he told her in their appearance before reporters.

From her first days on the job, Haley sought to fashion a distinct political brand, denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an unreliable partner even as Trump pursued a closer working relationship with the Russian leader, and pushing back against the president on some of his most controversial statements. When women accused Trump of inappropriately touching or groping them, Haley said they “should be heard.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, she described Trump as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.”

But Haley increasingly moved closer to Trump’s positions, backing his hard-line stances on Israel and Iran that often left the United States diplomatically isolated at the United Nations.

The isolation was on full display last month at the U.N. General Assembly, when a crowd of foreign diplomats laughed at Trump when he boasted in his speech that he had accomplished more than any president in history.

“I wouldn’t give Nikki Haley high marks. Yes, she helped marshal sanctions against North Korea and drove U.S. attention toward some countries that otherwise fell between the cracks of a chaotic foreign policy,” said Stephen Pomper, a former senior National Security Council advisor who oversaw U.N. affairs in the White House during the Obama administration.

“But she was also a divisive force, attacking institutions and NGOs that serve transparency and basic rights and working to transform humanitarian assistance into a political weapon.”

Pomper, who works for the International Crisis Group, said America’s position at the United Nations had been weakened in Haley’s nearly two years as ambassador.

Haley received praise from conservatives, who valued her defense of Israel and her sharp criticism of leftist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

“I think she has done a tremendous job,” said Brett Schaefer, an expert on the U.N. at the Heritage Foundation. The organization, he said, “is a place that is not terribly friendly to the United States. Even under Democratic administrations, the United States more often than not receives a minority of votes in the [U.N.] General Assembly.

“We know U.S. foreign-policy priorities often meet resistance, and she has navigated that very well.” he added. “She has been a very forceful advocate for U.S. foreign-policy priorities.”

Behind the scenes, Haley clashed with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose tenure at the State Department was marked by low morale, mismanagement, and a glaring aversion to the public spotlight. Haley quickly stepped in to fill the void.

But her influence diminished after Trump installed John Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as his new secretary of state this spring. Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador himself, is a fierce critic of international institutions, and Pompeo has a much closer personal relationship with the president than his predecessor.

Two State Department officials familiar with internal deliberations told Foreign Policy that most senior staff at the State Department were caught off guard by the announcement, including the front office of the bureau that manages international organizations. Haley told her staff of her decision only this morning, hours before the formal announcement.

Despite her assurances of loyalty to the president, Haley’s decision to leave the administration will allow her to distance herself from whatever setbacks the Republicans incur in the midterm congressional elections next month.

Top Democratic lawmakers were quick to paint her resignation as another sign of chaos in the White House. “I am deeply concerned about the leadership vacuum she leaves and the national security impact of her departure at this time of continued disarray for this Administration,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Haley is the latest in a wave of senior officials to leave the administration in the past year, including H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security advisor, who resigned in March; Tillerson, whom Trump sacked via Twitter that same month; Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who both resigned after scandals over wasteful and unethical actions with taxpayer money; and several senior White House legal and communications advisors.

While seated alongside Trump on Tuesday, Haley listed what she saw as the Trump administration’s foreign-policy successes: a harsh posture toward Iran and North Korea, missile strike reprisals against Syria for chemical weapons attacks, increased support for Israel, and a drive to slash U.N. budgets and reform its institutions.

“Look at what has happened in two years with the United States on foreign policy,” she said. “Now the United States is respected. Countries might not like what we do, but they respect what we do. They know that if we say we’re going to do something, we follow it through.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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