Elephants in the Room
Nikki Haley Will Be Back
Trump’s U.N. ambassador is the only cabinet official to have emerged from the administration stronger than ever.
Nikki Haley—the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who on Tuesday announced her intention to resign at the end of the year—has a rare quality among Trump administration cabinet officials: She is set to end her time in office with her reputation enhanced, not diminished.
She arrived at her post as something of a vice president in training. She boasted the ticket-balancing appeal that any Republican presidential candidate might want: governor of South Carolina (a key presidential primary state) and a woman, with a compelling only-in-America personal story to boot. She lacked foreign-policy and national security experience, however, so some critics wondered if she would struggle in her new role.
On the contrary, she thrived. For the first year, she was by far President Donald Trump’s most effective spokesperson on national security and foreign-policy issues. She seemed sure-footed where her bosses—the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state—all seemed less comfortable or even uninterested in fulfilling the basic executive function of explaining U.S. actions to a thoughtful public.
No whiff of the scandals that tainted other senior administration officials came to rest on her. The few times that she did clash with the White House, “I don’t get confused” Haley seemed to come out on top. She survived the tricky transitions from Reince Priebus to John Kelly as White House chief of staff, Rex Tillerson to Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, and H.R. McMaster to John Bolton as national security advisor better than most people, including me, expected she would.
Perhaps of greatest significance: She is the only administration official who has publicly claimed to have disagreed with Trump, multiple times, who has not received the presidential lash.
In fact, on the few issues where she has appeared to be at odds with the White House, she has been in the politically superior position. More Republicans prefer her more hawkish position on Russia to Trump’s approach.
It is true that her public profile is lower now than it was in the spring, let alone in 2017, when Trump took office. But this is primarily because her current immediate boss, Pompeo, is much more effective at public diplomacy than Tillerson was. Her role today is roughly akin to the role enjoyed by other higher-profile U.N. ambassadors, such as Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Madeleine Albright, or Bolton.
Likewise, she has had to serve as the public face for unpopular U.S. policies and thus deal with admonishments by foreign diplomats angered by them. But that, too, is a role that her predecessors played. She has not come to be perceived as the primary architect of these policies. And in some cases where the administration has been able to mobilize global support, Haley has been at the forefront of that effort—for instance, the ramped-up sanctions on North Korea in December 2017.
Add to this one more quality on which she stands head and shoulders above everyone else in the administration (save the president): She has real political charisma.
I witnessed this firsthand when she visited Duke University in April. The audience, hardly a representative sample of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” coalition, gave her a resounding standing ovation—before her remarks. Then they capped it off with another standing ovation after she finished. None of the scores of guests I have hosted at Duke over the years generated that kind of response. Afterward, she worked a selfie line—the millennial version of a rope line—that could have lasted an hour longer than the time allotted. One of my colleagues, an ardent Democrat, confided to me ruefully after the performance, “She could easily beat any of the Democratic headliners in the next election.”
That is why her promise not to do so will likely dominate the conversation about Tuesday’s announcement. While her promise not to run in 2020 was a tick or two short of Shermanesque, she went further than I expected in explicitly endorsing Trump and promising to campaign for him. I have long thought that there is room for a serious candidate to run against Trump in the primaries. The most formidable challenger would be someone running more in sorrow than in anger—someone who could claim to have supported Trump (and thus win over some of his supporters) while also clearly separated from his personal debilities and distractions.
Haley could have posed such a threat. But if she is considering a run, she went to extraordinary lengths to hide it.
Of course, someone contemplating such a move would not announce it in the White House while standing next to Trump. But neither would she offer gratuitous praise, as Haley did, for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law who serve as senior advisors.
Instead, if we must look for political positioning instead of merely celebrating that someone answered the call to national service and then served honorably and ably, consider this: As governor of South Carolina, Haley more than checked the box of executive experience and political campaign chops. As ambassador to the United Nations, she more than checked the box of foreign-policy experience. What she lacks for an arduous run for president in 2024 is the kind of independent wealth that many successful party nominees have enjoyed. She now has plenty of time to check that box, too.
I would be very surprised if ambassador to the United Nations is the last chapter of Haley’s political biography.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.