U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley may have had her authority undermined last week when the White House suggested she had botched a Russia sanctions announcement. But her response to the flap appears to have made her the most popular person in the Trump administration.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a momentary reaction to Haley sticking it to the White House. (“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” she said bluntly after chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow and anonymous aides suggested she had messed up.) But that does a disservice to Haley for two reasons:
- This is hardly the first time she has been hugely popular on a bipartisan basis.
- She has done it by making strong statements that somehow didn’t alienate the GOP base — or, apparently, President Trump.
There have been plenty of Republicans who have run afoul of Trump and gotten a bump among Democrats. But they have almost always paid a price with the GOP base — chief among them being Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain. That’s the binary dilemma that has led most every Republican who isn’t retiring to toe the Trump line at all times. And it existed in another form for much of the past decade, except back then it was about conservative purity rather than Trumpian purity.
Haley’s trick here was she essentially called the White House a bunch of liars, avoided a rebuke from it or Trump, and still has overwhelming support among the Republican base. The Quinnipiac poll shows 75 percent of Republicans approve of her vs. 9 percent who disapprove.
And she has been here before. Before Trump tapped her as his envoy to the United Nations, the then-South Carolina governor made a name for herself in 2015 by pushing for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds after a racially motivated massacre at a black Charleston church. That had been an issue Republicans did their best to avoid. It was also the kind of issue on which many a Republican would worry about overestimating the urgency and political importance of the moment. At the time, very few Republicans viewed the flag as being racist. But Haley marshaled support for the measure from a GOP-controlled state legislature that hadn't always trusted her, and she convinced the public that now was the time.
Her reward: an 81 percent approval rating, including 84 percent among self-described tea party supporters.
Two instances do not make a trend, but Haley’s deftness in dealing with very sensitive matters — and especially ones that could alienate the base and/or Trump — is a skill she has demonstrated repeatedly. She has often sounded slightly different notes than Trump, but save for an apparent Trump joke about firing Haley, it has never seemed to hurt her stock. It's not unreasonable to consider her as potentially the most gifted messenger in the administration or the broader Republican Party — and a real contender the next time the party needs a presidential nominee.
Her next move could be the one that finally draws Trump’s ire and turns his supporters against her. But in an administration and alongside a president that often makes it difficult to be broadly loved or admired, she seems to be navigating it with a unique Teflon coating.