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White House chief of staff promises 'audacious executive action'

Denis McDonough, the top-ranking White House staffer, also on Wednesday had kudos for Nikki Haley, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

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    Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on Jan. 13, 2016, in Washington.
    Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
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White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough says he has “a lot of admiration” for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

Mr. McDonough, the top-ranking White House staffer, spoke Wednesday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters. His comments came as some members of Governor Haley’s own party, including presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and conservative commentators Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, took the politician to task for remarks that were seen as implied criticism of GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

Also at the breakfast, McDonough played down the fact that Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address did not identify new executive actions that the president would take in his last year in office. During his second term especially, Obama has announced such steps on a variety of fronts, often to the consternation of Republicans. In November, a federal appeals court blocked several executive actions that Obama had taken on illegal immigration. The administration has appealed that case to the US Supreme Court.

McDonough was asked on Wednesday whether the administration is taking a more constrained view of the value of executive action in its final year.

“We will do audacious executive action throughout the course of the rest of the year. I am confident of that,” McDonough said. Although he did not specify what executive actions the administration planned, he said in a Tuesday evening blog post, “in the weeks and months to come, you will see the President unveil new efforts to address climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Obama’s most recent executive actions came last week with steps he said were designed to reduce gun violence.

Haley’s handling of that kind of violence – in particular, the mass shooting of churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., last June – was something McDonough said he admired. He cited her role in a key action that the state took after the shooting – removing the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds.

“Some of the things she has done over the course of the last year are remarkable. I thought that the reaction and her leadership role in the fallout from the Charleston shootings and her very brave and admirable role on the flag were powerful. And so on one level I wasn’t surprised to see some of the themes in [Haley’s] speech” Tuesday night, McDonough said.

The leader of Obama’s White House team did not specify which of the governor’s statements he found most appealing. In her speech, Haley warned against the temptation to “follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

In an apparent rebuke to some anti-immigrant language in the presidential campaign, she spoke of her experience as the daughter of Indian immigrants and said, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

McDonough cautioned that the Obama administration has multiple areas of disagreement with Haley. There are “a lot of things she has opposed and worked for I disagree with,” he said, citing her opposition to expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But he added, “A lot of this, including parts of the speech last night, were admirable.”

The chief of staff declined to speculate on the impact that Haley’s speech might have on the presidential primaries. But the governor’s fellow Republicans were more outspoken in assessing the political ramifications of her comments. Ms. Fiorina said Haley hit the “wrong note” in her remarks. Ms. Ingraham tweeted that it was “not smart” to criticize GOP candidates who were dominating polls. Ms. Coulter tweeted that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”

On “CBS This Morning,” Haley responded to the criticism, saying, “It is healthy when you can point out certain things that you feel like weren’t in the best interest of your state or country.”

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