Nikki Haley, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, is one of the shrewdest operators in the Republican Party. She’s so shrewd, in fact, that she managed to serve President Donald Trump and then leave the administration while neither destroying her own reputation nor incurring Trump’s vindictive wrath, a feat few have accomplished.
So when Haley publishes a memoir that seems a lot like a first step toward a 2024 presidential run, it can give us a good deal of insight into how Republicans are going to navigate the post-Trump world.
The book won’t be released until Tuesday, but reporters have obtained copies, and it seems that Haley’s treatment of Trump is calibrated down to the micrometer. She finds a couple of carefully selected episodes to explain her disagreement with the president, demonstrating that she’s not some fawning lickspittle of the kind Trump so loves to surround himself with.
But each one has the seed of forgiveness and understanding, with Trump described as being merely temporarily thoughtless or driven by admirable motivations.
So Haley didn’t like it when Trump told four members of Congress who just happen to be women of color to “go back” where they came from. But she insists that “I can also appreciate where he’s coming from,” so angered was he by their criticisms.
And Haley writes about Trump’s effort to coerce Ukraine into digging up dirt on Joe Biden:
So, do I think it’s not good practice to talk to foreign governments about investigating Americans? Yes. Do I think the president did something that warrants impeachment? No, because the aid flowed. And, in turn, the Ukrainians didn’t follow up with the investigation.
Trump may have gotten a little overenthusiastic, but no harm, no foul.
The result is something for everyone. To Republicans, she can say that she remained loyal in all things to Trump. To everyone else, she can say she was an independent voice unafraid to make her disagreements known.
Then there’s the story getting the most attention: That then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chief of Staff John Kelly tried to recruit her to help them put the brakes on Trump’s more ludicrous ideas:
“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” Haley wrote.
“It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing,” Haley wrote of the views the two men held.
Haley isn’t specific about what they asked her to do, but her outrage is clear. Yet what’s odd about this is that we know people around the president are constantly working to undermine, circumvent and stall his most appalling orders.
In fact, that often becomes an argument Republicans use in defense of Trump: Sure, he ordered the firing of the special counsel, but it wasn’t obstruction of justice because aides didn’t carry out the order! Sure, he wanted to buy Greenland, but nobody took it seriously – that’s just Trump being his normal crazy self! Sure, he told James Mattis to assassinate Bashar al-Assad, but of course Mattis didn’t do it – that would have been idiotic!
Haley knows all this, but she still pretends to be shocked that Tillerson and Kelly would so disrespect the chain of command as to not jump up and immediately implement whatever angry impulse Trump had on a given day. In so doing, she puts herself right at the sweet spot for an Republican politician with national ambitions: She shows how loyal she was to Trump, even while making room for the occasional respectful disagreement.
We don’t know for sure how Trump’s time in the White House is going to end, but let’s imagine for a moment that he survives impeachment and then loses in 2020. Four years later, someone like Haley will have a difficult balancing act if she wants to become the party’s nominee in 2024. On one hand, Trump will likely retain the affection of many Republican voters, and for all we know he’ll still be tweeting from the sidelines, encouraging them to stay as hateful and angry as possible. Appealing to those voters will be critical to winning the nomination.
On the other hand, if Trump is rejected and humiliated, it will be difficult to win the general election if you’re perceived as too close to him. That will require a 180-degree pivot: Spending the primaries talking about how proud you were to serve at Trump’s side, then spending the general talking about how deeply you disagreed with him and how you want to put that whole era behind us.
In a just world, the mere fact of having voluntarily gone to work for the most dishonest and corrupt president in American history would get you forever banished from public life. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in; since nearly every Republican is implicated in the horror of the Trump presidency to one degree or another, they will all have an interest in convincing the public that it wasn’t so bad and you could serve him while retaining your integrity.
Haley managed not to wind up debased and disgraced for two reasons. First, the job of U.N. ambassador combines high status with a relatively low profile in the national media; most of the time nobody (almost certainly including Trump himself) had much of an idea what she was doing. Second and more important, she was smart enough to keep herself apart from most of Trump’s insanity while avoiding his ire.
The president himself is pleased with Haley and her book; he has already tweeted out his approval, telling people to buy it. Which should tell you just about all you need to know.