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Nikki Haley’s defense of her nuanced Trump criticism, and the nuance it misses

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley approaches the lectern to speak on the first day of the Republican National Convention in August. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Last week, Nikki Haley was featured in an extensive Politico profile in which she seemed to take inordinate care to distance herself from former president Donald Trump. This was big news, because Haley is considered one of her Republican Party’s brightest rising stars and a 2024 presidential contender. She also was Trump’s United Nations ambassador. Given that, this was a significant entry in the GOP’s ongoing debate over how much it will remain defined by Trumpism.

But to hear Haley tell it, this has become something else entirely: an effort by the media to divide Republicans. In a new Wall Street Journal op-ed, she argues the media simply won’t let Republicans offer a nuanced review of the Trump era, instead demanding that they firmly land in the “Always Trump” or “Never Trump” camp.

This call for allowing nuance, though, itself glosses over lots of nuance. And Haley’s op-ed is a case in point when it comes to why the media is so critical of how she and other occasional Trump critics talk about his tenure.

There are undoubtedly many who demand complete disavowal of Trump, but plenty of the criticism isn’t about that; it’s about the level of honesty and logical consistency in evaluating Trump. And on that point, Haley has walked into the criticism on several occasions — including through her new op-ed.

Haley’s op-ed begins: “The media playbook starts with the demand that everyone pick sides about Donald Trump — either love or hate everything about him. The moment anyone on the right offers the slightest criticism of the 45th president, the media goes berserk: Republicans are trying to have it both ways! It’s a calculated strategy to pit conservatives against one another. It’s also a ridiculous false choice. Real life is never that simple. Someone can do both good and bad things.”

It is indeed possible for people to be both good and bad, and every president has both good and bad sides. But then Haley expands on what she sees as good and bad about Trump.

“People on the left, if they’re honest, can find Trump accomplishments they like — a coronavirus vaccine in record time, Middle East peace, more accountability from China,” she writes. “People on the right can find fault with Trump actions, including on [the] Jan. 6 [riot at the U.S. Capitol]. Right or left, when people make these distinctions, they’re not trying to have it both ways. They’re using their brains.”

Haley’s selections for what the left should give Trump credit for, “if they’re honest,” deserve their own nuance, though. Has Trump gotten tough on China with his trade war? Sure, but there are also drawbacks to such trade wars, and it’s about whether the benefits are worth the costs. Trump’s administration also forged several deals among Middle Eastern countries, but they were often far less substantial than advertised, at the very least. And summarizing them as “Middle East peace” suggests Trump accomplished something significantly grander than he did. Again, the nuance is important.

The coronavirus vaccines also fit. Was their rapid production an incontrovertible American success story? Undoubtedly. But just how much credit Trump deserves is a very valid debate. Moderna’s process was assisted by federal funding through “Operation Warp Speed,” but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was produced without it (though the U.S. government did have a distribution deal in place once it was produced). As The Washington Post’s health team reported in December, “In fact, the lightning-fast development of two leading coronavirus vaccines happened both because of and despite Trump.”

To call these success stories is defensible and perhaps even correct. To suggest no honest person can deny them as big wins for which Trump is personally responsible is odd in a column that otherwise calls for allowing people to have nuanced views.

Arguably the biggest disconnect in Haley’s op-ed, though, comes when she turns to his liabilities.

“Here’s my take: Most of Mr. Trump’s major policies were outstanding and made America stronger, safer and more prosperous. Many of his actions since the election were wrong and will be judged harshly by history. That’s not a contradiction. It’s common sense,” she writes.

“Mr. Trump’s legal team failed to prove mass election fraud in court. But election security is still urgently needed. If you have to show photo ID to buy Sudafed or get on a plane, you should have to show photo ID when voting in person or by mail. Again, these statements don’t contradict each other. They’re obviously true.”

If Haley’s claims to Trump’s success stories amble past nuance, though, this speeds past it. The criticism of Trump has never been that he wasn’t entitled to contest his election loss in court or that he merely failed in doing so. It’s that he pushed the idea of a stolen election — and continues to — despite all evidence to the contrary. This wasn’t just him asking a few questions; it was a concerted and months-long effort to baselessly undermine faith in American elections. It was also an effort that some of the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 spoke about. Treating this as merely a failed legal effort — a momentary counterpoint to the good things Trump did — is hugely reductive.

It also suggests, crucially, that Republicans would rather not really account for all that or — arguably worse — aren’t saying what they truly think about it. And that’s the crux of much of the criticism of what Haley and others say about Trump. It’s not that you need to be 100 percent on or 100 percent off the Trump train; it’s that when you stake out a middle ground, you don’t look like you’re doing it for political expediency or to hedge your bets. Politicians do that quite a bit, after all. And we have myriad evidence of Republicans who are unshackled from future political ambitions breaking with Trump in much more absolute ways, which lends plenty of credence to the idea that others with their prerogatives to mind are slow-walking their criticisms.

We should all be open to politicians taking such nuanced positions, and I for one have often felt that the criticisms of Trump’s GOP critics have gone too far. (For example, “[Former senator] Jeff Flake and [Sen.] Ben Sasse criticized Trump, but they voted with him 95 percent of the time!” Of course conservatives will overwhelmingly vote for conservative policies.)

The problem comes when it looks like they’re trying to triangulate and insulate themselves from how the political winds might be blowing in the future. That’s valid criticism, just as it’s valid to note that Republicans are confronting a very real and difficult choice about Trumpism — and that Haley’s handling of it is particularly important to that process.