Is Nikki Haley trying out for Rex Tillerson’s job? (Or Trump's?)

Once a major Trump critic, UN ambassador is now his foreign-policy star. Her ultimate goal is the White House

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published December 22, 2017 5:00AM (EST)

Rex Tillerson; Nikki Haley (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Cliff Owen)
Rex Tillerson; Nikki Haley (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Cliff Owen)

Back in October, Nikki Haley insisted that she didn’t want to take Rex Tillerson’s job. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told CNN that she “would not take” the promotion to secretary of state even if President Trump offered it to her. Once a fierce critic of Trump’s divisive policies, the former South Carolina governor has proven to be a skilled politician, finding ways to use her current position to keep her boss happy without damaging her own public standing — or future job prospects.

As one of the highest-ranking women in the Trump administration, Haley made headlines when she recently said that the women who had accused Trump of sexual misconduct “should be heard, and they should be dealt with.” In her UN Security Council debut, she became the first Trump administration official to condemn Russia for its “aggressive actions” in Ukraine. She has denounced the Russians as “shameful” for supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. While Trump still often refuses to acknowledge that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Haley has referred to that interference as “warfare.”

But Haley’s increasingly bellicose and erratic approach, at a time of growing uncertainty about the nature of American diplomacy, suggests that what may appear as courage on the surface might just be political calculation.

Haley has taken a high-profile, low-risk job and used it as an unofficial audition for secretary of state — or higher.

This week, she threatened UN member states with financial consequences for condemning the United States’ sovereign right to make its own diplomatic decisions. Haley used the U.S position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to veto a resolution condemning Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In the run-up to Thursday’s vote on a motion calling for the Trump administration to withdraw its decision, Haley sent a letter to all 192 members of the UN General Assembly. "The president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those who voted against us," read the letter, obtained by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Her message echoed the very first one she delivered to the UN back in January.

A rising Republican star who has won grudging respect from Democrats, Haley was approved as Trump’s envoy to the UN with wide bipartisan support. Initial skepticism about her lack of foreign policy experience has largely turned into praise.

A popular, two-term governor of South Carolina, Haley graduated from Clemson University with an accounting degree, but without taking a single political-science course. She touted her heritage as the daughter of Indian immigrants to defend Trump’s Muslim travel ban. With a potential personnel shift on Trump's foreign policy team constantly on the horizon, Haley has widely been regarded as a potential successor to Tillerson in Foggy Bottom.

"Ambassador Nikki Haley's political stock has never been higher. She has been the least controversial member of a mostly controversial Cabinet," Haley's former chief spokesman, Rob Godfrey, told South Carolina’s Post and Courier. "The sky is the limit for Nikki Haley, it’s just a matter of what she wants to do."

A long-rumored “Rexit” (the former ExxonMobil CEO’s spokesman is already leaving the State Department) could happen at any moment. Tillerson’s position within the Trump administration has been tenuous from the start. Lately, he has been an increasingly diminished presence in U.S. foreign policy, marginalized and undermined repeatedly by Trump on his two biggest diplomatic challenges, North Korea and Iran.

A day after Tillerson offered to negotiate with the North Korean regime "face to face" with "no preconditions" earlier this month, the White House said that the U.S. was not ready to begin talks with Kim Jong-un's government.

Tillerson also reportedly clashed with Trump over the summer because the president was unhappy that his secretary of state couldn’t provide a viable option for declaring that Iran was failing to comply with the landmark nuclear deal, which must be certified every 90 days. Tillerson disputed a report that he contemplated resigning over the summer, but he has never denied that he referred to the president as a "moron" during a meeting at the Pentagon.

Tillerson appears to have lost a number of internal debates within the Trump administration. By all accounts, he argued unsuccessfully for the United States to remain in the Paris climate accords, and has clashed with Trump’s aides about who should be nominated to serve in key State Department posts — while dozens of high-level jobs remain vacant.

In contrast, Haley continues to shine on the foreign policy turf Tillerson has virtually abandoned. (Tillerson’s spokesperson admitted that Vice President Mike Pence had asked the secretary if he thought Haley “was helpful to the administration, or if he was worried about the role she was playing.”)

Haley has been rallying support for harsh new sanctions against North Korea, while frequently echoing Trump’s heated threats. She reportedly worked behind the scenes to push the UN Security Council to pass tougher sanctions on North Korea than anything seen under either Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

In September, Haley warned that “our country’s patience is not unlimited,” adding that Kim Jong-un was “begging for war.” She added that the North Korean regime would be “utterly destroyed” if such a war broke out.

Last week, she gave a speech in front of what she said was an Iranian-made missile fired by Yemeni Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia, and vowed to “build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing.” She has been almost as vocal a critic of the Iran deal as Trump, saying, “I’m not making the case of decertify [the agreement] ... I’m saying should the president decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on.”

As a former official told New York magazine recently, “Her gut instincts are very similar to those of the president, which is probably why they have been so in sync.”

Perhaps that is why Haley had no issue public berating America's closest overseas allies — including Germany, Britain and France — as well as more than half the nations in the world this week.

"The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation," Haley said before Thursday’s UN vote, "especially when it comes to paying its UN dues."

Haley reportedly teamed up with Pence and White House chief of staff John Kelly to argue in favor of the Jerusalem declaration over the objections of Tillerson, who was worried about the potential for violence and diplomatic fallout. Haley has also pushed for cuts in spending on peacekeeping, after Trump signed an executive order during his first week in office to dramatically slash funding to international organizations that don’t meet a strict list of criteria. The UN did eventually cut $600 million from peacekeeping operations — a bit more than half of what Haley initially demanded. The U.S. — as the richest country in the world — currently pays about 22 percent of the UN budget.

"The United States is by far the single largest contributor to the UN,” Haley said in a speech before the General Assembly on Thursday. “We'll be honest with you: When we make generous contributions to the UN, we also have a legitimate expectation that our goodwill is recognized.”

The final vote, however, was a clear condemnation of the emerging Trump-Haley doctrine that other countries owe the U.S. unquestioning fealty.

All 14 other Security Council members, including the other four permanent members — the United Kingdom, China, Russia and France — along with other major U.S. allies like Japan and Sweden, voted in favor of the resolution. Only Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo joined the U.S. in voting against it. Twenty-one other countries did not vote at all.

Haley won the governorship of South Carolina just six years after entering politics. Her ambition and political intelligence are unquestioned. She may well have her eye on the secretary of state's job right now, but ultimately her goal is higher than that. She wants to be president one day, and at the moment she has to navigate the difficult challenges posed by the blustering blowhard who currently has that job.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson Secretary Of State The Trump Administration Trump Cabinet