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Nikki Haley, known for a lead-from-in-front style, exiting UN post

Why We Wrote This

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was in sync with President Trump on some issues, but out in front – perhaps too far – on others. At the White House, that wasn't appreciated.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Trump spoke with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 9, after it was announced the president had accepted Ms. Haley's resignation.

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UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s resignation Tuesday sent shock waves – certainly through New York diplomatic circles that had come to rely on her as a kind of decipherer of bewildering foreign-policy turmoil in Washington. Very little was immediately clear about the whys of her resignation, which President Trump accepted and will take effect at the end of the year. One of the few members of Mr. Trump’s original national security team still standing, Ms. Haley had at times stepped out in front of the administration with tougher and more provocative positions – on issues from Iran and Russia to human rights – than even the president seemed to support. For some in the White House, the ambassador’s lead-from-in-front initiatives were known to rankle as showboating that stole the spotlight from the president – a clear Trump White House no-no. Yet while Haley may have been out in front of Trump on some issues, on others she was in complete sync. Perhaps the clearest example of that was in her “America First” perspective of the United Nations as a bloated bureaucracy happy to feast on American financial support while disdaining its values and leadership in world affairs.

When an anonymous “senior official” in the Trump administration penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times last month chronicling chaos and deep policy divisions in the White House, Nikki Haley offered her own take on the infighting.

President Trump’s outspoken ambassador to the United Nations – who was suspected in some circles of being the disgruntled “anonymous” – skewered any speculation that she could be the author of any such back-stabbing.

“I don’t agree with the president on everything,” she wrote in a signed op-ed in The Washington Post. But “when there is disagreement, there is a right way and a wrong way to address it,” she wrote. “I pick up the phone and call him or meet with him in person.”

Ms. Haley’s resignation Tuesday as UN ambassador sent shock waves through an already reeling Washington – and certainly through New York diplomatic circles that had come to rely on Haley as a kind of decipherer of bewildering foreign-policy turmoil in Washington. By some accounts, even the White House was shocked when Haley first broached the idea of resigning in a meeting with the president last week.

Very little was immediately clear about the whys of Haley’s resignation, which Mr. Trump accepted and will take effect at the end of the year. The high-profile politician’s explanation Tuesday that she needed a break after two years on the global stage (which followed eight years as governor of South Carolina) convinced few in Washington. 

What was more apparent was how Haley, one of the few members of Trump’s original national security team still standing, had over her tenure sometimes stepped out in front of the administration with tougher and more provocative positions – on issues from Iran and Russia to human rights – than even the president seemed to support.

For some in the White House, the ambassador’s lead-from-in-front initiatives were known to rankle as showboating that sometimes had to be walked back, but which always stole the spotlight from the president – a clear Trump White House no-no.

Two recent examples: one involving Iran, the other Venezuela.

Haley engineered (and publicly announced) a Security Council session during UN General Assembly week last month that was to focus on Iran and its “malign activities” – and would be chaired by Trump.

By all accounts the president was fired up to lead such a diplomatic assault on Iran. But other national security policymakers worried the format would leave the US looking isolated, rather than Iran – and in the end Haley’s Security Council meeting morphed into a bland session on nonproliferation.

And then on Venezuela, Haley floored a boisterous crowd protesting the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro outside the UN last month when she hopped out of her limo, bullhorn in hand, and shouted to the protesters’ roaring approval that she and Trump have their backs.

“I can tell you that I talked with President Trump and he is fired up about this,” she told her bedazzled audience. “He is angry at Maduro. His comments were we are not just going to let the Maduro regime backed by Cuba hurt the Venezuelan people anymore.”

The problem is that, aside from some tough words and some additional sanctions on Venezuelan officials, Trump is not showing any signs of doing anything of consequence toward the Maduro government or to change Venezuela’s downward spiral.

'I don't get confused'

Even on Russia, Haley has at times staked out a hard-line position that went beyond where Trump, who has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, was prepared to go. Last year she went on Sunday news programs to announce that the US would be slapping a new round of sanctions on Russian entities involved in Moscow’s intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

Not so, responded the National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow, adding that Haley must have been “confused” about administration intentions.

That did not sit well with Haley, who publicly fired back that “with all due respect, I don’t get confused.”

Haley’s departure was lamented by some, including some in Congress, who see it as both another sign of chaos in the administration’s foreign policy team and a loss for the promotion of America’s values internationally – including human rights.

“I want to thank Ambassador Haley for her willingness to express moral clarity to the world, and to President Trump, and promote American values and leadership on the global stage, even when she lacked the backing of the White House or State Department,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey in a statement Tuesday.

Also citing Haley’s staunch promotion of America’s values was Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, who praised her for standing up “with clarity and strength” to “dictators” who would use the UN as “a platform to give lip service to human rights.”

Mr. Menendez and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio – whom Haley supported in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries – both have pushed the Trump administration on human rights, particularly concerning Cuba and Venezuela. And both have expressed support for Haley’s championing of human rights (as selective as that championing may have been) within an administration that from the outset has shown little interest in the issue.

In sync on 'America First'

Yet while Haley may have been out in front of Trump on some issues, on others she was in complete sync. Perhaps the clearest example of that was in her “America First” perspective of the UN as a bloated bureaucracy happy to feast on American financial support while disdaining its values and leadership in world affairs.

Haley seemed to relish her role in cutting US contributions to the world body and withdrawing from a number of its agencies. Announcing the US pullout from the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, she blasted the body as a “cesspool of political bias.”

In accepting Haley’s resignation Tuesday, Trump said he had a number of potential replacements in mind – and he ventured that filling the slot will be easy because Haley had made the job “more glamorous.”

Names already floating around as possible replacements include Dina Powell, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser (who reportedly spent last weekend with Haley); the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who was National Security Adviser John Bolton’s spokesman when he was UN ambassador; and – Ivanka Trump.

Whoever it is, Haley’s replacement seems likely to be someone who gets out in front of the president less. Among other things, Venezuela protesters may have seen their last bullhorn-toting US ambassador to the UN pledging enthusiastic presidential support.

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