Nikki Haley hits harder, emerges stronger for Oval Office run

Nikki Haley hits harder, emerges stronger for Oval Office run
© Greg Nash

UNITED NATIONS. Using the sardonic phrase “With all due respect,” as a verbal wind up, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyTrump critics push new direction for GOP Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE landed the round house punch, “I don’t get confused” squarely on Larry Kudlow’s lockjaw.

As if to tell President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE’s messenger “butt out,” Haley reaffirmed her stature as a Trump team player with her own swagger. 

Sunday morning, President Trump reportedly yelled at the screen when Haley told CBS News “Face the Nation” anchor Margaret Brennan that Russian sanctions would be enhanced. Apparently, Team Trump had switched the play without telling Haley.

But whether the president directed his boys club, or they appointed themselves, to school the lady from South Carolina, Haley once again trod the fine line between loyalty and self- respect.

Kudlow, saying she was suffering from “momentary confusion,” was trying to reign in one of only a handful former elected officials in the president’s inner circle. Haley shrewdly avoided responding to the statements by the State Department and unnamed administration officials.

Elected officials tend to be a breed apart when it comes to using the public stage to send threatening messages and Haley has mastered art of throwing the one-line pithy dagger.

Walking past the gaggle of correspondents at the UN press stakeout Thursday, she answered the shouted question “How’s your relationship with President Trump?”

“Perfect,” she replied.

It was a boast no one else on the president’s core team could credibly make.  Whether Trump will eventually issue his most popular executive order: “You’re Fired!” to the ambassador, time will tell, but many Republicans are not worried about that when it comes to Nikki Haley’s future.

Team Player, Rising Star

Republican strategist Susan Del Percio, former New York State Senate Republican Committee spokeswoman argued that Haley wins either way.

“She will be known as the person who stood her ground and didn’t get rolled over by a colleague in the administration,” Del Percio offered, “Or, if Trump really has a problem, and she has to resign or be fired, she’ll be the person who stood up to Donald Trump and his administration. She’ll have it either way.”

Although the ambassador refuses to speculate about a run for the Oval Office, Republican and Democrat insiders agree she is a force to contend with. 

Ed Cox, Chair of the New York Republican party commented “She is not a “rising” star, “she already is a star.”

“She has done an extraordinary job for the president in pushing his policies at the U.N.,” he enthused, “She is a real team player”

Democratic Respect, Skilled Politician

Even Democrats regard her as a comer. Former U.S. Ambassador at the U.N. Nancy Soderberg, who sat on President Clinton’s National Security Council, gave Haley her due: 

“She is a fighter, she’s tough, she’s articulate, she’s smart, she’s been a governor and she clearly has a very strong future.”

Haley, a Christian daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants, won election to the governorship of South Carolina as a Republican woman. No easy feat anywhere, let alone the Deep South. By now smart people know not to underestimate her.

Haley accepted the U.N. post by letting Trump know that she wanted to be able to speak her mind. She has both championed Trump’s policy on U.N. budget cuts and differentiated herself on some policies, including the Russian involvement in Ukraine and references to a Muslim ban.

Even as she cultivates her own leadership profile, she has veered outside her international lane. For instance, when the Michael Wolff book spawned a spat of nasty rumors, she did not shrink away: 

“At every point in my life, I've noticed that if you speak your mind and you're strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that. … And the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows — lies or not — to diminish you."

In general, she has steered her own ship, traveling almost weekly to the White House, at times with the U.N.’s Security Council in tow.

She is admired by Republicans who see her as a tough advocate of the Trump administration policies on Israel, on U.N. budget cuts, on Iran and North Korea. She has made human rights one of her flagship issues and held her own on crises in Syria, where she is passionate about civilian deaths, as well as outspoken about crises in Yemen and Myanmar.  She visited refugee camps in Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

A former George W. Bush administration official on the National Security Council, Matthew C. Waxman, faculty chair of the National Security Law program at Columbia Law School said of the bruising week, “I don't think it's hurt her, and it could even help her.”  

But Soderberg voiced a note of caution:

“I don't think it helps anybody when you are at odds with your own president when you are working for him and they need to get past this and move on. She’ll get past this and they’ll probably drive a more disciplined inter-agency process in the White House.”

Another former U.S. official at the U.N., who did not want to be cited, cautioned that she cannot afford to be out of sync with the president’s message. He told me:

“If this continues, it could cause problems … and send confusing signals to other countries.”

Higher office

Despite the dust up with Trump, her constituencies are formidable. She began her work at the U.N. with the stated purpose of defending Israel, not a popular position at Turtle Bay, but many of the diplomats find her honest and straightforward. She had already known the French, British and European ambassadors from her days in South Carolina, making trade deals for Michelin tire plants and car factories in the low cost “right-to-work” state. Her immigrant background also gives her standing with many migration and refugee non-government groups at the U.N. 

One Democratic strategist, who didn’t want his name mentioned, said, “Haley is a Republican that Democrats can live with.”

Republican strategist Del Percio pooh-poohed Kudlow’s apparent hazing, “He’s from a time when you covered for the White House — the Reagan years — and that’s what you did.”

Del Percio concluded, “He doesn’t realize this is ‘Game of Thrones.'” 

Pamela Falk is a U.N. resident correspondent and CBS News TV & Radio foreign affairs analyst and is former staff director of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. She holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law. She can be reached at @PamelaFalk.