Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN and the highest-ranking woman official in the Trump administration, is leaving with her reputation not only intact but even significantly enhanced.
As she prepares to leave at the end of 2018 after two years at the UN, the 46-year-old daughter of Indian American Sikh parents named Namrata, Haley is being widely seen as greatly skillful in negotiating the often incendiary and capricious administration under President Donald Trump.
With six years as the governor of South Carolina before her UN assignment, Haley is the first administration official who successfully carved out a reputation for independence even while not stepping on Trump’s toes.
If anything, she exits with Trump expressing sanguine fondness for her, calling her “very special to me”.
Even though Haley charted her own course as a UN diplomat in an administration run on presidential whims, she managed rather well in not attracting unvarnished attention of her boss.
The clearest expression of her independence came in April over the question of whether the administration would impose new sanctions on Russia in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria, which is effectively a client state of Moscow.
In an interview with CBS News on April 15, Haley had said: “Russia sanctions will be coming down. (Treasury) Secretary (Steven) Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday if he has not already, and they will be going directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to (Syrian leader Bashar al-) Assad and chemical weapons use.”
“So I think everyone is going to be feeling it at this point. I think everyone knows that we sent a strong message, and our hope is that they listen to us,” she had said.
The comments apparently put the White House and openly Russia-friendly Trump in a bind, prompting top White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow to say that Haley had “got ahead of the curve”, adding, “There might have been some momentary confusion about that.”
Stung by the “momentary confusion” comment, Haley swatted right back in a memorable counter — “With all due respect, I don’t get confused” — in an interview with Fox News.
That strong but succinct rejoinder from Haley was her way of saying that while she may broadly support the President’s agenda she was not going to be a pushover.
Throughout her two years as the top US diplomat at the UN, Haley managed to strike a delicate balance between executing the Trump doctrine, such as it is, and maintaining her personal credibility with world diplomats.
She may not have intended it that way originally, but once in the job, she assiduously built up her foreign policy credentials for a future presidential run.
Of course, during a West Wing announcement of her departure in the presence of Trump on Tuesday, she pre-emptively said: “I don’t have anything set where I am going to go… And I will say this to all of you that are going to ask about 2020: No, I am not running for 2020.
“I can promise you what I’ll be doing is campaigning for this one.” While saying “this one” she pointed to Trump sitting to her left.
That was as definitive as it can get in politics and, as of now, there are no expectations that she might still run for president in 2020. Even if she chooses to run in 2024, Haley would be only 52. It is unlikely that she would fade out for the next five years.
She was expected to take a break after an intensive eight years of public service during which she has emerged as a star of the Republican Party at a time when Trump snuffs all the oxygen out.
She made it a point to praise Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner during the brief West Wing media interaction for their various engagements behind-the-scenes, perhaps making sure that she can ride some of the president’s base if she does indeed run in 2024.