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For a man so obsessed with winning, the news of UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s preemptive departure yesterday must have given President Trump pause to reflect. Despite his hard-to-believe assertion that she had told him months ago of her plans, and the hastily-arranged, televised lovefest between the two, there are good reasons that Washington pundits are asking themselves “why now?”
In politics, only the naïve or the genuinely non-ambitious leave a winning team. Ms. Haley is neither. Watching her slightly saccharine, Lady-Doth-Protest-Too-Much performance, where she heaped praise on the President in the style to which he (and we) have become accustomed, I couldn’t help but wonder what is it that she knows that President Trump doesn’t.
Haley has been widely praised by international diplomats, Never Trump Republican establishment types, the press and even some Democrats as that rare bird in Trump’s cabinet: someone able to toe the line, periodically step over it, and yet still recover her place in the ranks - seemingly strengthened each time she does it.
Famously contradicting the President, and saying she “does not get confused,” Haley staked out a hardline on Russian sanctions, yet did not seem to suffer any consequences for getting out ahead of her famously thin-skinned President. Echoing the President’s tough guy talk, she shook the rhetorically genteel world of the United Nations by declaring that the United States was going to be “taking names” of those who didn’t see the world the way we do. Yet Ambassador Haley also was an expert practitioner of the private pull-aside where she effectively communicated her personal proclivity to work with partners and her internationalist versus nativist personal beliefs.
So why would this political tightrope artist and former South Carolina governor choose to announce her departure just weeks before the mid-term elections, and right after a big win for her boss in Brett Kavanaugh’s tawdry but successful nomination battle? Several factors may be at play, in my view all of them having to do with the wily ambitions of a very American daughter of Indian immigrants.
Like most poll watchers, Haley presumably believes that the Democrats will retake the House of Representatives in November. She knows this means a veritable blizzard of requests for information, subpoenas, testimony citations and other oversight inquiries by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. If she were to stay, the UN Ambassador would be called upon to explain to legislators why she was complicit in excoriating the United States’ traditional allies, blowing up an internationally-lauded Iran nuclear agreement, and defying the world’s best science by pulling us out of the Paris Climate Accord. While responding “the President made me do it” to these and other questions is a legitimate answer, it will do little to boost her image in the future, when the arc of history has bent the United States back towards greater international engagement and away from “America First” unilateralism. Haley knows this, so getting out now minimizes the potential for that damage to her reputation as a Republican female who can lead us toward consensus both domestically and internationally.
As well, there is that female angle. As someone who undoubtedly has been successful in traditionally male settings, from the statehouse to the Trump Cabinet, to highest echelons of global diplomacy, Haley may have been as disgusted by the President’s boorish behavior during the Kavanaugh hearings as were many other Americans. Perhaps the President’s mocking imitation of Dr. Blasey Ford’s inability to recall every detail of her alleged assault disgusted Nikki Haley the woman, the mother of a young daughter. I certainly hope so.
Finally, there is the immigrant’s tale. Haley has been conspicuously quiet with regard to President Trump’s immigration policies and his callous nativism where refugees and asylum seekers are concerned. Haley has made her own immigrant’s story a central pillar of her public persona. Fully American right down to her slight southern drawl, yet justifiably proud of her Professor father and her entrepreneurial mother who first came to this country like millions of other migrants from a classic Trumpian “s__thole country,” it could be that Ms. Haley had simply reached a personal and a pragmatic breaking point with the meanspirited zeitgeist of the Trump presidency.
By claiming that she would be campaigning for Donald Trump in 2020, and averring she has no immediate plans for the future, Ambassador Haley adroitly preempted much speculation as to her true motives. And after eight years of public sector salaries, Ms Haley may be looking to cash in and make some private sector money for a while. Whatever the mix of motives that caused her to step off the Trump Express, I suspect they all contribute to Nikki Haley’s desire to put as much time and space between her and that train when it starts to come off the rails. And November’s midterms could be the first sign of an eventual train wreck.
But all this is speculation. What is certain is that we have not seen the last of Nikki Haley. And I’m willing to bet that when she re-appears on the national stage it won’t be stumping for Donald Trump in 2020.