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 HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTrump rules out Haley joining 2020 ticket The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump targets Iran with new sanctions Nikki Haley blasts Roy Moore's Senate bid: 'He does not represent our Republican Party' 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 KavanaughSupreme Court declines to overturn doctrine on regulatory clarity Gorsuch joins liberal justices in ruling against federal criminal statute Susan Collins: Trump's 'she's not my type' defense is 'extremely bizarre' 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 SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordThe Memo: Can Trump run as an outsider? Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt McConnell opens door to vote on Iran war authorization Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline 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 CornynSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 2020 debates complicate Senate plans for vote on Trump's war authority Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack 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 CorkerTrump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.) said he has confidence that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo2 US service members killed in Afghanistan after Pompeo visit The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? State Department need not be at odds with itself on Republic of Cyprus policy 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 GrahamBooker calls for hearings on reports of ICE using solitary confinement GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (R-S.C.) to replace Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAttorney General Barr plays bagpipes at conference Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama Trump: Appointing Sessions was my biggest mistake 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 John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again 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 PriceChaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently Leaked Trump transition vetting documents show numerous officials with 'red flags': Axios Democrats constantly overlook conservative solutions to fix our broken health care 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 ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedGOP hopes dim on reclaiming House Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record House passes amendment to block funding for transgender troops ban 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.