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Nikki in 2020: Don’t rule it out

Nikki in 2020: Don’t rule it out
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America’s outgoing ambassador to the United Nations announced Tuesday that she does not plan to run for president in 2020. Perhaps. In the meantime, why alienate a president who remains highly popular with the Republican base, who at present could inflict significant political damage to her standing with that base, and who for the moment appears to be able to sway the decisions of all three branches of government?

Should the Democrats take the House and harass President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE for the next two years, or should the Mueller investigation unearth truly damaging details about Trump’s relationship with the Russians, the president may decide to declare victory and not run for a second term — and Haley could then step into the breach.

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Haley’s departure announcement with the president at her side certainly was a lovefest. For once, Trump’s hyperbole was well-placed: Haley has been a truly effective ambassador to the United Nations. With the possible exception of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Haley, more than anyone else in the administration, was an articulate and internationally respected spokesperson for Trump’s policies, especially during his chaotic first year. Haley responded to the president in kind; she amazingly labeled First-Son-In-Law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference John Kelly to leave White House at year's end The Memo: All eyes on Kelly as Trump shake-up gathers steam MOREa hidden genius.” (Among those who know him, some might agree that his genius is, indeed, exceedingly well hidden.)

Yet this is the same Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyJohn Kelly to leave White House at year's end Heather Nauert is the wrong choice for UN ambassador Overnight Defense: Nauert tapped for UN envoy | Trump teases changes to Joint Chiefs of Staff | Trump knocks Tillerson as 'dumb as a rock' | Scathing report details Air Force failures before Texas shooting MORE who asserted, after Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in April of this year, that “the Russian regime[’s] … hands are also covered in the blood of Syrian children” and who then announced the imminent imposition of a new round of sanctions against Russia. White House spokesmen called her remark “premature,” and Trump put a halt to any new sanctions — but when White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow said “there must have been some momentary confusion” on Haley’s part, she shot back that, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”

It also is the same Nikki Haley who, during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, when she supported Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Meadows says 'too early to tell' if special House election should be held in North Carolina Kobach ‘very concerned’ voter fraud may have happened in North Carolina MORE (R-Fla.), said Trump represented “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.”

Haley had been a successful, popular three-time governor of South Carolina but needed to add international experience to her resume. The U.N. ambassadorship not only offered her that experience but, second only to the secretary of State, offered her both a platform and a vehicle for meeting all of the world’s leading statesmen during their annual pilgrimage to the September opening of the General Assembly. The post also comes with some of the best perks in government, among them a penthouse apartment and tickets to various New York events. No wonder she took the job.

Moreover, she shared Trump’s views on many international policy issues, notably support for Israel and hostility to Iran. And, despite the flare-up over Russian sanctions, she appeared to have no difficulty in forcefully articulating the administration’s other major international concerns. At the same time, she was able to avoid becoming enmeshed in debates over domestic policy, notably immigration policy, on which, as a daughter of immigrants, she was not on the same page as President Trump.

No one expects Haley to drop out of sight after January. The only question is when she will return to the political fray. The timing of her announcement would indicate that this could take place sooner rather than later. While it is certainly the case that aspiring candidates for president begin to build their campaigns and policy teams shortly before or after congressional midterm elections, and Haley clearly will not do so, this need not necessarily be the case. Haley could discreetly build a staff once she has left office at the end of the year, and then hold off announcing her intentions until mid-2019. George W. Bush withheld making any official announcement of his intention to run until more than seven months after the congressionals; Haley could do the same.

Haley certainly can be expected to run if Trump does not; even if he does, she could mount a powerful insurgent campaign against him. She is a true conservative with views ranging from abortion to Israel to a strong defense that are shared by the Republican base. And her stand on immigration is sufficiently moderate so as to avoid alienating that base. Should she make a run for the presidency, that in and of itself might convince Trump to call it quits, much as President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968. And then America might find that it has elected its first woman president.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.