So it’s happened again. Big deal. A top Trump administration official has jumped ship, one of dozens to do so less than two years into the president’s term.
But this time was definitely different. When Nikki Haley announced she was stepping down, she did so from the Oval Office in a joint appearance with Trump, who said Haley had been “very special to me” and praised her “fantastic job” as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. “Hopefully you’ll be coming back at some point but in a different capacity. You can have your pick,” Trump said, as Haley beamed. (Let’s not forget that Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a tweet.)
Haley in turn praised Trump’s foreign policy skills and even hailed his son-in-law, White House senior aide and Ivanka spouse Jared Kushner, as “a hidden genius.” It was just time for a break, she maintained, citing no policy differences, shrugging off any personal ambitions for public office in 2020 and pledging to campaign for Trump’s re-election if he chose to run.
“There’s no personal reason,” she said, elaborating on her nonrationale for departing. “It’s very important for government officials to understand when it’s time to step aside.” But she wasn’t that tired. She said she would stay on the job until January 2019, if necessary, to give time for a replacement to be picked.
The rare — albeit hastily arranged — Oval Office farewell ceremony illustrates how well Haley has carefully meshed two conflicting yet crucial job requirements. Alone among the many officials fleeing or being thrown out of the Trump administration to date, she has kept some critical distance from a president viewed by many people in the international community as a clueless crazy man, even as she provided him with critical support and a measure of credibility at the UN.
She insisted on having an independent voice within the administration as a condition of serving, and stoically ignored Trump at his most bizarre. While she has occasionally spoken against this or that presidential outrage, it has been only enough to convince the most casual of observers that she was a reasonable moderate hiding in a hard-right administration.
In a recent Washington Post opinion article, she denounced an anonymous official who tried to reassure the public that responsible aides were monitoring the president to ensure he didn’t do anything too wild. If something awful was about to happen, Anonymous should pick up the phone, as Haley claimed she did, and tell the president he was making a big mistake. A critic unwilling to do that should resign, she asserted.
Yet she was missing in action when Trump went to the UN in September 2017 to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “rocket man . . . on a suicide mission.” And where was she in June 2018 when Trump did an unwarranted about-face and announced that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat,” even as it continued to crank out atomic bombs? What about his relentless out-of-control Twitter attacks and steady insults of longtime US allies, some of whom she sits next to in the Security Council?
Haley won praise from Trump for her job performance and she boasted that the administration had won over the international community in her 21 months on the job. “Countries may not like what we do, but they respect what we do,” she said.
But is that the case? International polls and interviews with UN diplomats show the US and its leader to be deeply unpopular in many parts of the world as its reputation sinks lower and lower. A Pew Research Center survey of 25 nations released this month found that the number of people around the world with a favorable opinion of America and its president has been falling since Barack Obama left office in January 2017.
Haley’s own hard-line talk at the UN may also be a factor in the diminishing reputation of the US. Was it helpful to US foreign policy when she dismissed a Security Council vote on a key Middle East measure, condemning the US move in Jerusalem, as “an insult,” warned that Washington would be “taking names” of those voting against it on a related General Assembly resolution, then invited only those who voted yes or abstained on it to a party? (You could see the partygoers’ forced smiles in the photos she posted.)
As for credibility, when some delegates laughed at Trump’s Sept. 25 General Assembly boast that “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” was it reinforced when Haley told Fox News that they “loved how honest he is”? Haley has shown courage, on the other hand, in publicly defending the right of women to be heard when they step forward with potentially damaging allegations of sexual abuse. She spoke about this in December 2017, after 16 women had come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against the president.
“I know that he was elected,” she said, “but, you know, women should always feel comfortable coming forward. And we should all be willing to listen to them.”
She publicly criticized the president a second time just last month. This occurred after Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault when they were teenagers, decades ago. As Ford and Kavanaugh prepared to testify about her allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump questioned the validity of her statements. (He later mocked Ford at a political rally and in a barrage of tweets.)
“It’s not something that we want to do, to blame the accuser or to try and second-guess the accuser,” Haley said in a Sept. 23 television interview. “We don’t know the situation she was going through 35 years ago. We don’t know the circumstances.”
So was the timing of her resignation connected to Trump’s mockery?
Or, to listen to Washington’s many conspiracy theorists, has Haley chosen this moment to announce her departure to prepare for her expected appointment to the Senate seat, held by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham? That could happen when Trump names Graham as his new attorney general, after carrying out the long-threatened firing of Jeff Sessions.
Wish we knew.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.