When a senior official in the Trump administration resigns, it is usually the culmination of an awkward and bitter series of events. First, stories emerge detailing the official’s conflicts with President Trump, usually accompanied by head-snapping quotes in which the official describes the president as an ignorant, impulsive and dangerous half-wit. Then, perhaps, there are some insulting tweets from the Oval Office, followed by an attempt by the official at some last-minute apologetic boot-licking to demonstrate his or her loyalty. Then the official departs, and Trump boosters enthuse that the great man is finally assembling an appropriately worshipful team.
That isn’t always how it goes. Sometimes an official such as Scott Pruitt or Tom Price departs in the wake of scandal that embarrassed the president. But, in nearly all cases, we can see it coming from far off.
That is not, however, what happened with Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She announced on Tuesday that she’ll be resigning, and her tenure in the administration tells us a good deal about the Republican Party that Trump has built.
With his typical informed insight, here is how Trump described Haley’s time at the United Nations, during an event at the White House on Tuesday:
That was really the thing I think she did best at the United Nations: She got to know the players. She got to know China, Russia, India. She knows everybody on a very first-name basis, and they like her.
There’s a little more to being U.N. ambassador than learning everyone’s names, but we can’t expect Trump to bother figuring out what the job might involve. After all, it’s just a bunch of foreigners, right?
Haley was vague about why she decided to resign (she mentioned “term limits”), but there are some indications that she had been marginalized by the administration’s national security leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — both of whom (especially Bolton) tend to approach other countries with a combination of belligerence and contempt, which would make the task of any U.N. ambassador difficult.
Before anyone could ask, Haley did say she would not be running for president in 2020, but will be campaigning for Trump’s reelection. Which, in itself, is pretty shrewd: Raise the issue so people talk about it, but also deny anything that smacks of disloyalty to Trump. She didn’t say anything about 2024, however, and she does seem to have been looking for that seam where she can be independent enough to not discredit herself with future general-election voters, but still be enough of a Trump booster to be viable in a Republican primary.
When Haley first took the job, it was a bit of a surprise. Serving as the governor of South Carolina at the time, she was what we used to call “a different kind of Republican” — highly conservative, to be sure, but not with the kind of snarling rage we’ve gotten so used to from other members of her party. A woman of South Asian origin, she supported removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol and endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for the Republican nomination in 2016. In many ways, she is exactly the kind of different face many in the party hoped they could put forward to attract a wider base of support, an idea that was emphatically rejected by Trump and his supporters.
But, in one way, it made sense for her to sign on with the Trump administration. If she wants to run for president in 2024 or after (she’s only 46), it would be good to have a foreign-policy résumé to go along with her experience at the state level. Trump presented that opportunity, even if working for him might taint her forever.
It is a fate she may have escaped. From most of those who work for him, the president demands not just personal obsequiousness but regular public displays of lickspittlery, the kind that could come back to haunt them in the future if this administration ends in some ignominious fashion — which it well might, even if we’re just talking about defeat at the polls in two years. But since most Americans pay little or no attention to the United Nations, it was seldom necessary for Haley to beclown herself on Trump’s behalf in a high-profile way.
So she may be one of the few Trump officials who departs without becoming an object of ridicule, scorn or the attention of prosecutors. If she does have presidential ambitions, she’ll have a different problem: convincing the GOP base that she’s Trumpian enough to deserve their votes. To repeat, Haley is extremely conservative and will be able to tout her commitment to tax cuts for the wealthy while railing against foreign enemies. But she does remind one of what Mike Huckabee used to say about himself: that he was a conservative, but he wasn’t angry about it. In Donald Trump’s GOP, that doesn’t fly.
Might it someday? The party we see today might not be the same party in six years. But it’s difficult to see whether anything, even a couple of defeats at the polls, would truly force (or enable) it to change. For the moment though, at least Nikki Haley can say that almost alone among those who went to work for Donald Trump, she emerged with her reputation mostly intact.