U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks this week during a U.N. Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Among the dozens of White House aides and Cabinet secretaries — those who have left and those who remain — you can find only a few who have not been besmirched in some fashion by their association with President Trump. Sean Spicer will forever be remembered as the hapless dissembler, Reince Priebus as the ineffectual chief of staff and so many Cabinet secretaries as grifters. Only a very few seem immune to the noxious Trump effect — former acting attorney general Sally Yates, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

Haley has walked a political tightrope with the Republican Party. She has been loyal enough to please Trumpkins, but smart enough to avoid obsequiousness to Trump. She has not made the error of trying to spin his horrible rhetoric directed at women, immigrants, etc. She has maintained her generally pro-immigrant stance in the most anti-immigrant administration since the 1920s. And she has been untainted by financial scandal.

Haley has enjoyed a somewhat charmed life far away from Washington and the daily soap opera that consumes the media and political class. She has the freedom to throw punches at the world’s rogue states (e.g., Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea) yet bears no responsibility for the president’s policy decisions (having in fact lobbied internally against them). While Trump vacillates between bravado and meekness, Haley has remained a staunch hawk and among the few vigilant defenders of human rights in the administration. What’s more, she has had no role in the unpopular tax bill, the debt buildup or other domestic-policy disasters.

This week, cracks appeared in Haley’s otherwise solid relationship with the White House on the topic of Russia sanctions. The Post reports:

Nikki Haley might as well have called the White House a bunch of liars. … After Haley said Sunday that the sanctions were on the way by Monday, the White House appeared to change course and said a decision had not been made. But rather than an admission that President Trump had had a change of heart, word ventured out that Haley had gotten out over her skis.

One anonymous official said Haley had made “an error that needs to be mopped up.” Another more charitably said there had been confusion. Then on Tuesday afternoon, chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow was significantly less charitable to Haley, telling CNN that she “got ahead of the curve” and “There might have been some momentary confusion about that.”

Haley is not one to be thrown under the bus, however. In a statement, she tartly responded, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Kudlow quickly apologized.

If the former South Carolina governor is as smart a politician as she appears, she will need to plot her escape from the administration, preferably by the end of the year. She doesn’t want to leave in a fit of pique, nor bypass the opportunity to get credit for foreign-policy wins. However, especially if the GOP loses big in November, she’d be wise to free herself and thereby preserve her political viability. She doesn’t want to be in the administration when the special counsel report comes out (or when Trump snaps and fires Robert S. Mueller III or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein). She needs to get out before too many more of these on-again-off-again sanctions battles with Trump.

If Trump’s presidency comes tumbling down and/or if he decides not to run in 2020, she will benefit by being far from the scene of the political train-wreck. And she will be in a unique position as a former governor well-versed in foreign policy. She’ll be viewed as a team player who nevertheless preserved her dignity and principles.

The longer she remains, the greater chance she finds herself at odds with Trump (and his voters) or is forced to adopt positions that later prove embarrassing, if not disqualifying. This episode should serve as a warning to Haley: Don’t tempt fate. Better to leave sooner than later.