The old Nikki Haley called for civility. The new one just said Democrats are ‘mourning’ a terrorist.

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at her Senate confirmation hearing in January, 2017. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Nikki Haley navigated the choppy waters of the Trump administration better than anyone. Using a relatively low-profile gig as ambassador to the United Nations, she picked her spots. She distanced herself from Trump when it made sense – such as on Charlottesville and when she was ensnared in a bungled rollout of new Russia sanctions – and she bear-hugged him when that made sense. The result was she walked out the door with a remarkably bipartisan reputation. An April 2018 poll showed Republicans approved of her by a 75%-to-9% margin, and even Democrats liked her: 55% to 23%.

All of this makes the game she’s playing now extremely conspicuous. Given even more freedom to pick her spots after leaving the administration a year ago – and with a future that many suspect includes a White House bid – she’s now made it abundantly clear she’s betting on Trumpism sticking around.

Haley made perhaps her most strident comments to date Monday night on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Talking about President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, she said Democrats were “mourning” his loss.

“The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates,” Haley said. “No one else in the world.”

Then she tweeted the quote and video for good measure, making clear this wasn’t just something she had stumbled into saying.

The claim is objectively false. Whatever you think of the kind of rhetoric Democrats have employed in questioning the wisdom of killing Soleimani, they haven’t mourned the death of a man who is estimated to have killed hundreds of Americans. Some have balked at them calling it an “assassination,” which they feel legitimizes Soleimani. But nobody of real heft is singing the praises of his virtues. The argument is that this could lead to a war that nobody wants.

Of course, people aren’t the only casualties of war; so too, often, is nuance. Haley’s comments follow in a long line of Republicans suggesting Democrats are taking the side of Iran by questioning Soleimani’s killing. It harks back to the early days of the Iraq War, when Republicans accused Democrats who opposed that conflict as siding against U.S. troops.

If that was overheated, though, Haley’s comment explodes the thermometer. She’s essentially accusing the leaders of the Democratic Party of having affection for a man that the U.S. government considers to be a leader of terrorists. It’s not a stretch to say that she’s labeling them terrorist-sympathizers. This is the state of our rhetoric.

And it’s a far cry from where Haley was in mid-2018. Speaking to a group of high school students, she warned against needlessly provocative rhetoric – particularly the desire to “own the libs” with statements that incense them.

“I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this – are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?” Haley asked. “We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership; it’s the exact opposite.”

Then she added: “Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view – not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”

“Owning the libs” and constant provocation was (and is) basically Trump’s entire political strategy. It’s what he uses to rally his base, whose devotion to him has kept him relevant even at the depths of his presidency. Haley seemed to be urging her party to take a different course at a time when it was running headlong into a future defined by nasty, Trumpian politics.

She echoed that sentiment during the 2016 campaign, saying, “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.” Even as recently as September, she said, “Civility and accomplishment go hand in hand. Leadership is persuasion, and leadership is impossible if we’re yelling at each other.”

That approach indeed seemed to endure in some ways after she left the administration. When Trump tweeted gleefully in August about the burglary of the home of Elijah Cummings, the Democratic congressman from Maryland who died in October, Haley tweeted back at him directly, saying, “This is so unnecessary.”

Since then, though, she has released a book that almost exclusively praised Trump, including for supposedly learning the lessons of Charlottesville in response to later tragedies. She also accused other top officials of trying to undermine him. She even maintained that Trump – he of the 15,000-plus false and misleading claims – has been “truthful” in her experience.

Haley’s comments Monday night, though, take things to another level. She may continue to try to play the game of distancing herself from Trump in the rare occasions in which she thinks it makes sense, and accordingly hedging her bets. But with these new comments, she’s now made clear in which direction she’s erring – and erring quite strongly.

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