Nikki Haley Embodies What’s Wrong With the Republican Party
In January, 2016, Nikki Haley, who was then the first female governor of South Carolina, delivered the Republican response to Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. She dutifully criticized the two-term President, trotting out a few G.O.P. talking points on the national debt, health-care reform, and the threat of terrorism. But she also rebuked her own party, saying, “We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”
At the time, Donald Trump was leading the polls in the 2016 Republican primary. Haley didn’t mention him by name, but there was no doubt about her target when she said, “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.” Haley endorsed Marco Rubio in the primary. When he dropped out, she backed Ted Cruz. After Trump won the nomination, she fell in line behind him but continued to insist that she wasn’t a fan.
What a difference a few years can make. On Sunday, Haley gave an interview to CBS News to promote her new book, in which she recounts the nearly two years she spent working for the Trump Administration, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. When the interviewer, Norah O’Donnell, asked whether Trump would ultimately be impeached and removed from office, Haley’s reply was entirely dismissive. “No. On what?” she said. “You’re gonna impeach a President for asking for a favor that didn’t happen and—and giving money, and it wasn’t withheld. I don’t know what you would impeach him on.”
Abusing his office for his own personal gain, perhaps? Threatening to abandon a vulnerable ally to the mercy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Bidens from a foreign country for the benefit of his 2020 reëlection campaign? If Haley had even considered any of these justifications for the impeachment process, she didn’t let on. “When you look at the transcript, there’s nothing in that transcript that warrants the death penalty for the President,” she insisted. “The Ukrainians never did the investigation. And the President released the funds. I mean, when you look at those, there’s just nothing impeachable there.”
If nothing else, Haley’s interview provided a preview of what we are likely to hear from Republicans on Capitol Hill in the next few weeks, as the House Intelligence Committee holds televised hearings featuring some of the foreign-policy officials inside the Trump Administration who looked on in astonishment and horror as the Ukraine squeeze play unfolded. The Republicans will continue to harp on the partisanship of the process. They will also create diversions, such as this weekend’s demand for Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistle-blower who reported Trump’s actions to testify before the cameras. But the core of their argument, and their ultimate fallback position, will be that the entire inquiry is much ado about nothing and should never have been started.
In adopting this see-no-evil posture, Republicans like Haley are confirming Trump’s belief that the normal rules don’t apply to him. Trump said during the 2016 election that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any supporters. What he has learned in the intervening period is that, as long as his supporters stay loyal, he won’t lose any elected Republicans either—or not very many of them, anyway. Some Republicans are too gutless to follow their consciences. Others still sense that there is personal gain to be had from associating themselves with Trump.
Haley, who is often mentioned as a possible Presidential candidate for 2024, is a prime example of a Republican who is supporting Trump for opportunistic reasons. Despite lacking foreign-policy experience, she spent two years at the United Nations defending Trump’s efforts to thumb his nose at the world by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In her new book, according to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy, she says that she supported all of these moves, and she doesn’t stop there. In a blatant effort to further ingratiate herself with Trump and his supporters, she criticizes Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, and John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, for trying to work around the President and contain his worst instincts.
“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” Haley writes. “It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing.” The problem with that, Haley told O’Donnell, is that “they should have been saying that to the President, not asking me to join them on their sidebar plan.” She added, “To undermine a President is really a very dangerous thing, and it goes against the Constitution and it goes against what the American people want. And it was offensive.” (Kelly told CBS and the Post that if providing the President “with the best and most open, legal and ethical staffing advice from across the [government] so he could make an informed decision is ‘working against Trump,’ then guilty as charged.”)
The reality is that Tillerson and Kelly, along with the former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, were trying to deal with an unhinged novice of a President who refused to read his briefing notes and ranted daily at North Korea, NATO, and other targets. Haley writes that Tillerson told her that people would die if Trump wasn’t checked. Meanwhile, Haley—having taken herself out of the running for Secretary of State—could sit safely in New York, where she had plenty of visibility but no real responsibility for making policy. In October, 2018, she announced her resignation—a clear case of getting out while the getting was good—and went on to join the board of Boeing and write her book.
Evidently, it does include some passages in which she distances herself from Trump’s actions. His response to the violence in Charlottesville and his behavior at the 2018 Helsinki summit both prompted her to talk with him and register her concerns, she assures her readers. But on those occasions, as now, she didn’t speak out openly, and her loyalty was rewarded. On Sunday, Trump plugged Haley’s book on Twitter, writing, “Make sure you order your copy today, or stop by one of her book tour stops to get a copy and say hello.”
During an interview with the Post, Haley was asked about her own Presidential aspirations. “I’m not even thinking that way,” Haley insisted. “I’m thinking more of, we need to do all we can to get the President reelected. And then, from there, deciding how I will use the power of my voice. . . . I know that I need and want to be involved in some way that’s helpful.” For Haley, helping Trump is helping herself.