White House

Nikki Haley Has a Point

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at AIPAC in Washington, D.C., March 25, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
In our constitutional order, unelected insiders do not set foreign policy.

Nikki Haley isn’t a Deep Stater. She’s not a saboteur. She wouldn’t undermine the duly elected president, no siree! That’s the message that comes along with Haley’s new memoir With All Due Respect. In that book, she gives the politician’s review of her career so far, shares some details about her brief Trump-era time serving as U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, and gives some ideas about her life story.

The juiciest detail is that then–secretary of state Rex Tillerson and then–White House chief of staff John Kelly approached Haley and tried to involve her in their intrigues to “save the country” from the president himself. She tries to explain their rationale. “It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said,” she writes. “The president didn’t know what he was doing. . . . Tillerson went on to tell me the reason he resisted the president’s decisions was because, if he didn’t, people would die.”

Haley rebuffed their approach, though she doesn’t say she reported their insubordinate attitude to the president. “I was always honest with the president, even when others around him weren’t.”

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake decodes Haley’s revelation for esoteric meaning. Yes, Haley is emphasizing that she wasn’t disloyal to the president, Blake notes. But she’s also confirming that concerns about Trump’s fitness and the wisdom of his decisions goes “right to the top.”

At The Week, Joel Mathis looks at the political implications of Haley’s disclosures. In “Nikki Haley Is Plotting a Loopy Path to the Presidency,” he sees her following a strategy that involves “a careful balancing act, simultaneously demonstrating her loyalty to Trump and her independence from him.” This is, Mathis contends, Haley’s way of playing to Trump’s base while also making it safe for people who don’t like Trump to trust her.

I think both observations are correct as far as they go. There is a political calculation at work in Haley’s book and the speeches that have gone with it. Interestingly, Haley doesn’t highlight her policy disagreements with Trump so much as her disagreement with his rhetoric and choice of words. In her book, Haley retells the story of the president’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville after the tiki-torch parade. She said that at the time she felt that the president’s words “had been hurtful and dangerous.” And so she “picked up the phone and called the president.”

Ultimately, Haley is at pains to emphasize that her loyalty to the president is also a loyalty to the voters who put him in office. By respecting the president, even when she disagrees with him or his way of doing things, she’s respecting the voters she may hope to win someday.

One may find this cynical or savvy on her part. I’m not a natural Nikki Haley supporter. I haven’t found her speeches all that impressive. And I tend to be on the opposite side of the intramural conservative debates about foreign policy. But even if one takes Haley to be making a calculated political maneuver by demonstrating “her loyalty to Trump and her independence from him,” we should note that this is precisely the right thing to do constitutionally. And she knows it. Haley told Norah O’Donnell during an interview that cabinet officials and bureaucrats have their duties: “Go tell the president what your differences are and quit if you don’t like what he’s doing. . . . But to undermine a president is really a very dangerous thing, and it goes against the Constitution and it goes against what the American people want. And it was offensive.”

Haley’s recent media tour may be about promoting her book and her prospects, but she’s doing so by staking her claims on solid constitutional grounds. The danger Haley refers to is very real. There is no “American foreign policy” that operates independently from the elected branches of government or that needs protection from them. Believing so invites our elected and appointed political class to draw ever further away from the people they govern, and it threatens the legitimacy of our institutions and elections.

We’ve gotten to this dangerous spot for many reasons. What Trump critics see as his erratic decision-making, his lack of experience, and his character are all a larger part of that story. But so too are those unfaithful servants in the executive branch who have sought to accomplish their own private agendas and put those ahead of the president’s. So too has Congress disfigured the presidential office by kicking over so many responsibilities to the executive branch. But one good thing about Haley’s sudden presence is her reminder that the presidency is bigger than Trump. And it needs to be in working order for the succession of people — Democratic, Republican, and others — who will occupy it in the future.

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