Nikki Haley is a GOP rising star. But some don’t like her stealing Trump’s spotlight
WASHINGTON — Almost as soon as The New York Times published an explosive piece from an anonymous senior administration official describing how some top Trump aides work to prevent the president from making reckless decisions, Cabinet secretaries quickly began releasing statements denying they were the author.
But only one of them, Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, wrote her own op-ed in response — a piece that angered some in the White House who thought it was designed to draw attention to herself, according to two outside advisers who are close to the White House.
All presidents want the spotlight to themselves, but perhaps none more so than the current one.
“There’s only one star in this show and it’s Donald J. Trump,” said one of the two people, a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House.
Since the start of the administration, White House aides have grumbled that Haley, a rising star in the Republican Party who is widely considered to be eying a run for president, has repeatedly either gotten in front of Trump or taken the spotlight away from him.
“That’s always been the friction between her and the White House,” said a former White House official. “It has been that way since day one.”
Last year, when Trump took his ambitious maiden foreign trip, Haley set out on her own trip to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. Haley’s office said the administration was aware of her plans and encouraged the trip.
In the spring, Haley got ahead of Trump when she announced on Sunday talk shows that the United States would impose new sanctions on Russian companies aiding Syria. The White House wasn’t ready for that to be announced. And when National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters that Haley was “confused,” and that sanctions weren’t coming, she publicly shot back: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
Kudlow later apologized, although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin praised Haley as a “terrific spokesperson” and warned people not to read too much into the situation.
And Haley has touted the need for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election despite Trump repeatedly calling it a “witch hunt” run by a group of “angry Democrats.”
“Staff would joke about her being a potential 2020 primary opponent because she so often got ahead of the president or went another direction on an issue,” the former White House official said. “It was frustrating even if she was right on the merits.”
A Haley spokesperson said the president and ambassador work well together and that the White House communications office knew about her op-ed before it was published, as is the normal practice.
“Like the anonymous New York Times editorial, some anonymous troublemakers in the administration might want to create a story where none exists, but the reality is that Ambassador Haley strongly supports President Trump’s agenda, and the president highly values her contributions to his administration, including her willingness to speak her mind,” said a Haley spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice.
The White House did not respond to questions.
Trump and Haley are not personally close and don’t meet in person often, given that she works in New York. But they will see each other this week when Trump attends his second United Nations General Assembly meeting. Trump arrived in New York Sunday.
Trump tapped Haley, then the governor of South Carolina, as ambassador to the U.N. soon after he won in 2016 — a surprising choice given that she supported his rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, during the Republican primary for president, was a frequent Trump critic and had little foreign policy experience. Trump even kept the job as a Cabinet-level position, a break from his recent Republican predecessors.
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, had the same reputation for seizing the political moment during her early political career that she does now. In South Carolina, she won praise — and plenty of national headlines — when she quickly called for the removal of the Confederate flag from capitol grounds after a mass shooting at a historically black Charleston church.
Haley remains in Trump’s inner circle in part because she’s a polished messenger of the president’s policy, appearing on TV interviews and garnering more attention than most Cabinet secretaries, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who served as the high-profile Texas governor for 14 years, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Carson and Perry both ran for president.
She is often mentioned as a possible running mate to Vice President Mike Pence if he runs for president in 2024 or a possible presidential contender one day.
Trump, who often publicly airs his frustrations about his staff, especially on Twitter, has said very little about Haley. She follows his “America First” vision, criticizing world leaders and cutting off U.S aid, even as she speaks her own mind on issues — and raising her own profile as she does.
When she was asked about the sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, Haley said his accusers should be heard. “Women who accuse anyone should be heard. They should be heard, and they should be dealt with,” she told CBS in December. “And I think we heard from them before the election. And I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up.”
After Trump said that there were “good people on both sides” of a rally of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Va., where one of hundreds of counterprotesters was run down with a car that injured dozens more, Haley spoke her mind again. “I picked up the phone and I had a private conversation with the president about Charlottesville, and it was taken very well,” she said.
Haley’s spokesperson downplayed those issues. “Ambassador Haley has a very good and direct relationship with the president,” the spokesperson said. “He respects that she speaks her mind and he encourages her to do so. He has never criticized her for it.”
In recent weeks, Trump lashed out at the anonymous writer of the Sept. 5 New York Times op-ed who says they are part of a “quiet resistance” working against the president to block part of his agenda, “misguided impulses” and “reckless decisions.”
The writer claimed Cabinet officials had considered invoking the 25th Amendment to have the president removed from office if a majority of secretaries tell Congress the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
Top Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Defense Secretary James Mattis released statements denying they wrote the op-ed. Even Vice President Mike Pence felt the need to weigh in and offered to take a lie detector test.
In response to a shouted question from a reporter about whether she wrote the op-ed, Haley simply replied “no.” But on Sept. 7, Haley wrote a rebuttal published in The Washington Post, saying she “proudly serves” in the Trump administration but when she disagrees with the president she talks to him privately to express her opinions.
“As a former governor, I find it absolutely chilling to imagine that a high-ranking member of my team would secretly try to thwart my agenda,” she wrote. “That is not the American way. It is fundamentally disloyal, not just to the chief executive, but to our country and our values.”
It wasn’t what she wrote but that she wrote it at all that irked some people.
“It was unnecessary,” said the second person familiar with the reaction of some White House aides. Trump “hates it when these people get more attention than he does. Any Cabinet secretary could have done that. But there’s a reason no one else chose to do anything.”
Trump didn’t say or tweet anything critical of Haley’s response — perhaps in part because much of Washington was still consumed then with who wrote the original piece and her op-ed didn’t get as much attention as it might have on another day.
A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said Haley understandably is struggling to remain politically relevant in Washington while working in New York but that her piece didn’t help her in the White House. “I’m sure it didn’t do her any favors,” the person said.