Haley, Integrity Intact, Is the Exception to the Trump Rule
Nikki Haley’s surprising remonstrance, issued this week from under the bus, earned huzzahs from both parties and showed the world what successfully surviving service in the administration of President Trump looks like. It also showed the lady can throw some damn good shade.
After she appeared last Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and announced there would be new sanctions on Russia to follow recent airstrikes in Syria, the White House said the ambassador was mistaken. Larry Kudlow blamed it on “momentary confusion,” to which Haley responded: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Kudlow folded immediately and apologized. And the man of too many words used none -- a rare occasion when Trump himself held back.
Haley is an unlikely heroine in the ever unfolding drama that is the presidency of Donald Trump. She was an outspoken opponent of Trump during the 2016 campaign, and is the daughter of Sikh immigrants who smashed glass ceilings to become South Carolina’s first female governor, the nation’s first ever Sikh governor and the second ever Indian-descent governor. She has not stooped to the sycophancy most of her colleagues have, and without foreign policy chops has studied and worked her way to success in one of the highest-profile positions in U.S. government.
Out of the gate Haley made it clear she would confront Russian aggression, and considered its interference in the 2016 election an attack on the United States. And when her boss and other Republicans were backing Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy and the #MeToo scandals were consuming the news, she dared to go on television to answer the obvious question about her views on sexual misconduct, saying the women “should be heard.”
But Haley reportedly speaks frequently with the president, listening and acknowledging, working in his some of his preferred rhetoric to official declarations. She is as careful as Trump is chaotic, working hard to be the official who avoids getting tripped up. So she didn’t take the effort to scapegoat her lightly. Indeed, the truth was not at all confusing -- yet officials including Kudlow thought they could cover for the president by blaming his U.N. ambassador for screwing up a critical national security matter. According to the New York Times, Trump began screaming at the television set Sunday morning while watching Haley, certain he hadn’t agreed to something he in fact had. The report said discord stems not “just from competing views on Russia but from larger questions of political ambition, jealousy, resentment and loyalty.” He has longed disagreed with Haley’s hawkish stance against the Putin government even though, as some recent policy choices illustrate, he has been convinced at times to be tougher on Russia.
But following his outburst Sunday, word was transmitted to Russian officials there would be no sanctions, CNN and other outlets reported. The following day, some White House officials said Haley erred in announcing them because they would be delayed as a result of the Treasury Department having yet to prepare legislation for them.
That’s strange, since they were included in talking points for surrogates released by the White House on Saturday night, described as punishment for “Moscow’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, which has enabled the regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people.”
Kudlow was shrewd to fall over backwards with his apology -- calling Haley directly and conceding publicly, “I was wrong to say that -- totally wrong.” The national economic adviser, in his second week on the job, had clearly been brought up to speed on the value of Haley’s currency. Even Trump, who enjoys weighing in on personnel dust-ups on Twitter -- to deny chaos, declare the insulted and mistreated employee is doing a great job despite reports they’re days from being fired -- was rendered tweet-less.
Haley is one of only two high-level Trump officials who remain untarnished -- Defense Secretary James Mattis is the other. There are two groups of those thus far tainted: those who turned out to be everything the president promised not to hire and those who have allowed their integrity to be sullied by Trump himself. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, and former Secretary for Veterans Affairs David Shulkin are in the first category. If you throw in alleged wife beaters, there’s Rob Porter too.
In the second, more distressing category are Chief of Staff John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, former National Economic Adviser Gary Cohn and Vice President Mike Pence. Others were scattered along the way, spokespeople both current and departed who have lied for Trump.
There is also the case of Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser who seemed to serve quietly and effectively and to leave quietly and effectively in December. Silence is a theme here. To be sure, Mattis has retained both the trust of the president as well as the respect of most everyone else inside and outside of the administration. But he has done so by staying mute. He will occasionally give answers to some defense-related questions but works hard to avoid interviews asking too much.
Haley, however, has been more than willing to take on both the tough questions and the incredibly awkward ones. Throughout her tenure she has maintained and burnished a reputation which she clearly intends to preserve for the future. She was acutely aware of how damaging this week’s incident is to her standing with foreign leaders who are perpetually left questioning the shelf life of each and every statement coming from the Trump administration. Both Tillerson and McMaster suffered tongue lashings on Twitter from the commander-in-chief. Fresh from strikes in Syria, and approaching a summit between the U.S. president and the leader of North Korea, Haley is being relied upon as secretary of state when there is no one officially on the job.
It’s significant that several Republicans were eager to jump to her defense once Haley spoke out, since Trump-inflicted personnel kerfuffles are a topic GOP lawmakers work hard to dodge. “She’s been a very forceful advocate and I would hope the administration really values that. She stood up for herself admirably, so helpfully that will end the story there,” Sen. Ron Johnson said.
Sen. John Thune, third in line in Senate leadership, said, “It doesn't help her credibility if, whenever she gets out there and is articulating the administration and the United States’ position, to have somebody undercut them.”
Tillerson and McMaster would have loved more defenders when they were humiliated on the world stage by their boss.
Haley made sure to her message was clear: #NotMeToo.