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GOP on timing of Haley’s announcement: 'Unusual' and 'odd'

Republicans on Capitol Hill and party strategists are surprised and a bit annoyed by the timing of Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Haley isolated after Trump fallout Trump to reemerge on political scene at CPAC MORE’s decision to resign from the Trump administration.

Publicly, Republican lawmakers are effusively praising Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is a star among the party’s conservative base. But privately they’re scratching their heads about the timing of the announcement, which stole attention from Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Laurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election MORE’s first day on the Supreme Court.

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One of the most puzzling elements of Haley’s departure is that it was announced less than a month before the midterm elections even though she’s not stepping down until the end of the year. That has sparked speculation on why she went public on Tuesday instead of waiting another month or so.

“The timing here, I think, would strike most political observers as unusual. It’s not the normal kind of thing to announce a resignation like this a month before the midterm congressional elections,” Rep. Mark SanfordMark Sanford5 lawyers leave Trump impeachment team ahead of trial: reports South Carolina GOP votes to censure Rep. Rice over impeachment vote Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial MORE (R-S.C.) told CNN on Tuesday afternoon.

Democrats seized on it as evidence of a White House in disarray, one of the themes of their midterm campaign message.

“It came as a surprise,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack MORE (Ill.), who said he couldn’t remember such a high-ranking official leaving an administration so close to an election.

“This is such a pattern of change,” he said. “It’s a very challenging, to say the least, if not frustrating assignment to work for this president.”

Haley in her resignation letter, dated Oct. 3, said she wanted to return to the private sector after serving 14 consecutive years in public office.

“As a businessman, I expect you will appreciate my sense that returning from government to the private sector is not a step down but a step up,” she wrote to Trump, informing him that she would serve until January 2019.

“There is something odd about it. It is odd so close to an election to do this, especially since she’s going to the beginning of the year,” said a Senate GOP aide.

GOP staffers and strategists said the announcement caught GOP lawmakers off guard on a day when they were planning to tout Kavanaugh’s first day on the Supreme Court and Friday’s jobs report, which showed the unemployment rate dropping to a nearly 50-year low, 3.7 percent.

“Odd,” said a second Republican aide. “My first reaction was, why couldn’t she wait until Nov. 7? She’s hanging on until the end of the year so there’s no reason to do it now.”

A Republican strategist said Haley’s departure has spurred chatter about her motives and the internal political dynamics of the White House at a time when Republican candidates are trying to keep voters focused on the economy.

“In addition to triggering an avalanche of speculative rumors about what she may or may not have in mind down the road and whether there’s more movement to come in the administration, it also served as another distraction from the good things that are happening for Republicans,” the strategist said.

“Every House member locked in a difficult race desperately needs to have a conversation about the booming economy and anything distracting from that topic hurts their chances to win,” the strategist added.

GOP lawmakers on Tuesday expressed some disappointment over Haley’s departure and said they are looking forward to seeing what she does next.

“I liked Nikki Haley. I think she did a good job at the U.N.,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip MORE (Texas). “I’m looking forward to her next act, whatever that may be.”

Lawmakers view Haley, who was confirmed by the Senate 96-4, as one of the most steady figures in the administration and see her playing other leadership roles in the future.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerIt's time for Biden's Cuba GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand MORE (R-Tenn.) said he has confidence that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS intel: Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi killing Golden statue of Trump at CPAC ridiculed online Five things to watch at CPAC MORE will keep international diplomacy running smoothly.

Corker said he got the sense during a visit with her three months ago that she only planned to stay a couple years in the U.N. job.

Some say that Haley may be positioning herself to be appointed to the Senate in case Trump taps Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report MORE (R-S.C.) to replace Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsManchin flexes muscle in 50-50 Senate Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' Ocasio-Cortez targets Manchin over Haaland confirmation MORE. Haley previously served as South Carolina’s governor.

Graham, however, said Monday that he has no intention of working for Trump.

“I have zero interest in serving in President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE’s Cabinet,” Graham told reporters in South Carolina. “I like him, I want to help him, I want him to be successful. I think I can do more good for the country and help President Trump more effectively by being in the Senate.”

But that claim isn’t likely to persuade GOP colleagues who view Graham’s recent efforts to ingratiate himself with Trump as a not-so-veiled audition for a high-level post in the administration.

Graham told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that a second term for Trump is “looking better and better” shortly before playing golf with him Sunday. And he made a splash earlier this month by delivering a fiery denunciation of Democratic tactics when Kavanaugh testified before the Judiciary Committee, the type of hardball politics that Trump loves. 

Others maintain that Graham enjoys the spotlight of the Senate and he is positioning to get Trump’s endorsement in his 2020 Senate campaign — both in the primary and general election.

Yet another theory on Haley is that she may be leaving because of a possible controversy over accepting flights on private planes, an issue that derailed former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceBiden health nominee faces first Senate test Focus on cabinet nominees' effectiveness and expertise, not just ideology Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE.

A government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), sent a letter to the State Department’s inspector general Monday asking for an investigation into whether Haley complied with executive branch gift rules after accepting flights on private planes. 

Haley’s resignation letter, however, was dated several days before CREW filed its complaint.

Even though the media’s focus turned from Kavanaugh to Haley on Tuesday, some Republicans say there is no comparison between the two news events.

“Kavanaugh ignited a much bigger debate and energy in our base than Nikki Haley’s resignation,” said Rep. Tom ReedTom ReedTaylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Here are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act House passes sweeping protections for LGBTQ people MORE (R-N.Y.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “Ambassador Haley will continue to play a long-term role in our success. She is a leading voice communicating why we fight for what we believe in, and I am confident her voice will be loud and clear throughout this cycle and beyond.”

A House Republican campaign official also waved it off: “My honest take is that it doesn’t impact that much, and I don’t have any reason to think she timed it specifically for before the election.”

Melanie Zanona, Scott Wong and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.