Why you should care
Because she may run for president … at some point.
Sporting a pink tweed jacket, Nikki Haley smiles brightly into the Fox News camera, as she calmly and cheerfully defends her handling of the GOP rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. “Our country is made up of immigrants,” Haley says. “That is the fabric of America.”
Donald Trump soon fired back, calling Haley “weak” on immigration. The two verbally sparred a few more times — Haley said Trump is “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president,” and Trump tweeted that the people of South Carolina are “embarrassed” by Haley.
It was quite a different atmosphere in the Oval Office on Tuesday. A grateful Trump declared her “a fantastic person,” as Haley, 46, announced she would leave her post as United Nations ambassador at year’s end. She lavished praise on the president and those around him, including calling Jared Kushner “a hidden genius.” The former South Carolina governor offered little explanation for her departure: “I’m a believer in term limits,” she told White House reporters. Haley also said she won’t stop fighting for our country but feels that it’s “time.”
She went from working as an accountant in her family’s clothing store to the South Carolina governor’s mansion in just six years.
These cryptic statements and the odd timing — an announcement before the highly-charged midterm elections, and two months before she actually plans to leave — left Washington stunned. Speculation swirled that Haley could be making a play for the White House herself in 2020, which OZY columnist Susan Del Percio argues would help save the Republican Party. Haley denies this, saying she will support Trump’s re-election, but she certainly would be in the mix for 2024.
While Haley’s immediate aims are hazy, she leaves the Trump administration with her reputation intact — unlike several other major departures from Trumpland — and a clear sense that we haven’t seen the last of her.
Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, Haley was an unlikely GOP candidate from the start. As the daughter of Indian immigrants in the tiny town of Bamberg, South Carolina, her dark features were startling to conservative southern voters when she first campaigned for a seat in the statehouse in 2003. Haley couldn’t find an established campaign consultant to work with her — all of them vehement that no one in her county would vote for a candidate whose father wore a turban. But Haley, born and raised a southerner, a practicing Methodist and a mom of two, eventually won them over.
From there, Haley’s political career skyrocketed. She went from working as an accountant in her family’s clothing store to the South Carolina governor’s mansion in just six years. She received national praise when she removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in the wake of the Charleston church shootings in 2015 (though the year prior, she refused to take down that same flag).
When Trump appointed Haley to represent the U.S. in the United Nations in late 2016, she had little foreign policy experience. Today she’s regarded as one of the most tenacious members of Trump’s foreign policy team. At the U.N., she was outspoken on issues like North Korea and Iran’s nuclear aspirations. She castigated Syria for human rights violations and criticized Russia for its support of the Bashar al-Assad regime. “When she took the U.N. job, many felt that she was not very experienced for it,” says David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and Republican strategist. “She soon proved them wrong and did a very good job of carrying the Trump administration luggage in New York.”
But Haley has taken flak for a wishy-washy human rights track record. She pulled the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing the group’s “chronic bias against Israel,” and withdrew from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to millions of Palestinian refugees. Deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch Akshaya Kumar told The Atlantic that Haley’s justifying her decision based on Israel alone ignored “the good work the council does all around the world.”
Haley’s departure may rid her of the drama of the Trump administration, but she could soon face another set of problems. On Monday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the State Department to investigate whether Haley violated regulations by accepting seven flights on private jets from South Carolina businessmen last year.
Her political rise has been accompanied by finger-pointing before, from the claims of marital infidelity during her 2010 campaign for governor (which Haley strenuously denied and were never corroborated) to a South Carolina ethics investigation into whether she blurred her business and political interests (the legislature cleared her). “She’s escaped inspection [before],” says Woodard, “and I suspect that she will again.”
Before a possible run for the presidency, Haley could take a job in New York or Washington dealing with international affairs, Woodard says. And as for her U.N. replacement? Former deputy national security advisor Dina Powell is considered the frontrunner, with Trump acknowledging Tuesday she’s on his short list.
Curiously, Powell and Haley spent the weekend together enjoying some South Carolina sun, according to Haley’s Twitter feed. Perhaps it was an early passing of the torch.