Rising star Nikki Haley a potential threat to Trump

Ms Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, mixes home-spun Southern charm with hard-boiled political savvy.
Ms Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, mixes home-spun Southern charm with hard-boiled political savvy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Ms Nikki Haley's abrupt and unexpected resignation from President Donald Trump's administration secured her membership in a singular club - the rare former White House official who leaves Mr Trump's orbit as a political force who could pose a potential threat to the President.

In a sign of her rising profile, the ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday simultaneously announced her resignation at the end of this year while also reassuring Mr Trump that she has no plans to challenge his re-election.

"No, I'm not running for 2020," she said, seated next to the president in the Oval Office. "I can promise you what I'll be doing is campaigning for this one. So, I look forward to supporting the President in the next election."

The blunt statement underscores both the loyalty demanded by Mr Trump and the political complications Ms Haley could pose to the President.

At 46, Ms Haley has built her own political brand and has a long potential career ahead of her.

The former South Carolina governor mixes home-spun Southern charm with hard-boiled political savvy - a daughter of immigrants boasting both executive experience in her home state and foreign policy chops from two years as one of Mr Trump's top diplomats.

"She's a rising star and he's king, so there's always an inherent tension there," said Mr Mike Murphy, a long-time Republican strategist and Trump critic.

For now, at least, Ms Christine Matthews, a pollster who has worked with Republican candidates, said Ms Haley seems to be leaving the administration on her own terms and with her personal and political bona fides still intact.

"She has served very well and has only enhanced her reputation, and I think she's probably the only person in the Trump administration who you can say that about."


Ms Matthews likened Ms Haley to Dr Condoleezza Rice - the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser under former President George W. Bush - who was often mentioned as a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate.

"She's one of these rare people in Republican circles who conservatives and moderates really like, and women and men can both agree on," Ms Matthews said. "She's Indian American, she's young, she's both pragmatic as well as conservative."

Yet for a rising star, it remains unclear where she will shine. In the hours after her surprise announcement, political operatives floated options ranging from a high-dollar private-sector gig to a television contributor deal and book contract.

There was also chatter that Ms Haley could seek the Senate seat occupied by Senator Lindsey Graham, an idea quickly dismissed by Haley confidants, Mr Trump and Mr Graham himself.

Mr Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz, said that while Ms Haley's departure was highly choreographed, the challenge for her will be how she bides her time, especially if Mr Trump seeks re-election in 2020 as expected.

The timing of Ms Haley's exit, less than a month before the 2018 mid-term elections, struck many in the president's circle as either savvy or suspect. On the one hand, she leaves with foreign policy credentials, the credibility that comes from navigating an often chaotic White House and ahead of potential political fall-out from the November elections or Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

"She's shrewd, which is good in politics, but you have to keep an eye open," said Mr H. Boyd Brown, a former Democratic South Carolina legislator who has battled with Ms Haley in the past. "She's coming for you if you are in her way."

The suddenness and secrecy surrounding her announcement on Tuesday also prompted speculation about her motives. The expansive portfolio she enjoyed during Mr Rex Tillerson's tenure as Secretary of State was diminished by the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who controlled foreign policy out of the White House.

But Mr Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said Ms Haley's whirlwind resignation was probably deliberate. "What you saw was vintage Nikki Haley," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2018, with the headline 'Rising star Nikki Haley a potential threat to Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe