Nikki Haley is resigning as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, jolting the foreign policy world and President Donald Trump’s team just weeks before the midterm elections.
Haley, one of the most respected members of Trump’s Cabinet on the international front, said Tuesday that she will stay in the role until the end of the year. She also said she did not plan to run for president against Trump in 2020, downplaying the intense buzz about her political future.
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Her plans to quit were closely held and a genuine shock to the U.N. community as well as other Republicans, although some have said in recent months that she appeared to have less room to maneuver in the role since John Bolton took over as Trump’s national security adviser.
Trump said he may name a new U.N. envoy in less than three weeks; speculation quickly swirled around who that might be, with some predicting — with little evidence — that Trump may pick his daughter, Ivanka, or son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom advise him in the White House.
During a news conference alongside Haley in the Oval Office, Trump heavily praised her, saying she’s “done an incredible job” and is “a fantastic person.”
“We’re all happy for you in one way, but we hate to lose you,” Trump told Haley. “Hopefully you’ll be coming back at some point, but maybe in a different capacity. You can have your pick.”
Trump said that Haley informed him about six months ago that she would want to “take a break” at the end of her first two years. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, was an early critic of then-candidate Trump before joining his administration. She turned down his offer to be secretary of state, on grounds that she lacked enough foreign policy experience. Instead she became the U.N. envoy, which Trump included in his Cabinet.
As to why she’s leaving now, Haley said that she wants Trump to have “the strongest person to fight” and that she believes “it’s good to rotate in other people who can put that same energy and power into it.”
“It has been an honor of a lifetime,” she said. “You know, I said I am such a lucky girl to have been able to lead the state that raised me and to serve a country I love so very much. It has really been a blessing and I want to thank you for that.”
In her resignation letter, Haley told Trump she “will surely not be a candidate for any office in 2020.” She also hinted strongly that she’ll join the private sector. “As a businessman,” she wrote to Trump, “I expect you will appreciate my sense that returning from government to the private sector is not a step down but a step up.”
Haley has been a forceful presence at the United Nations, maintaining the respect of fellow delegates to the world body even as she took steps that were deeply unpopular on the international stage.
She oversaw the U.S. decision to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying it was too biased against Israel and too loaded with members with spotty human rights records. She has also pushed through policies that have been highly unfavorable to Palestinians, including stopping U.S. funding of the main U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees.
Many of her moves — including her vocal support for Israel — have been seen among U.N. officials as possible efforts to burnish her Republican credentials. Haley, who is of Indian descent, is considered a strong potential future GOP presidential candidate.
Still, from the start, other nations have looked to Haley as a clear voice articulating U.S. foreign policy. In particular, Haley drew a lot of attention during Trump’s first year in office because then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who did not get along with her — avoided the spotlight.
Haley also has been a steady voice as opposed to Trump, who can be mercurial in his views on foreign policy. And at times Haley has placed daylight between herself and Trump. She’s been much more forceful in her criticism of Russia, for instance.
At one point, when a Trump adviser chided her for message “confusion” when she announced sanctions on Russia before the president made his final decision, Haley shot back: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
Haley also was a critical player in laying the groundwork for Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, defending that choice at every turn despite intense international criticism.
Overall, Haley has stayed in Trump’s good graces even as others have fallen out, which was why so many people were surprised to hear she’s leaving. Being based hours away in New York may have helped. Haley said in April that her relationship with Trump was “perfect.” Last month, she wrote a column slamming an anonymous senior Trump administration official who’d written an op-ed for The New York Times that criticized Trump.
Also last month, Haley carefully prepared the scene for Trump’s second visit to the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly. The event did not go smoothly — Trump drew rebukes for his Iran policy and laughs for his boastful claims of success during his speech to the General Assembly. But there were no complaints aimed at Haley in the aftermath.
In recent months, as others have joined Trump’s team, U.N. diplomats have wondered about how much sway Haley continues to hold in the administration.
Mike Pompeo succeeded Tillerson as secretary of state in late April. While he is believed to get along well with Haley, he’s also less willing to cede the spotlight to her than Tillerson. The arrival that same month of Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser also appears to have affected the dynamic.
Bolton is a former ambassador to the United Nations with a well-known disdain for such international institutions. In September, Bolton announced that the United States would no longer engage in any way with the International Criminal Court.
“Her public role seems more limited” since Bolton and Pompeo took on their foreign policy portfolios, a longtime U.N. diplomat told POLITICO in recent weeks.
But a State Department official said Haley had offered no hints that she didn’t get along with either Bolton or Pompeo.
In brief remarks outside the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Pompeo thanked Haley for her service. “She’s been a great partner of mine for now five months that she and I have been working together,” he said.
The State Department official also said Haley had earned widespread respect among career U.S. staffers, and that many were angling to land a spot at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
“Everyone was totally blindsided” by her decision to quit, the official said. “People were dying to work for her.”
“People are sad,” added a staffer at the U.S. mission in New York.
Now a major question is who will fill Haley’s shoes. Speculation that it could be either Kushner or his wife, Ivanka Trump, grew when Haley praised both of them in her remarks Tuesday.
“I can’t say enough good things about Jared and Ivanka,” Haley said during Tuesday’s news conference. “Jared is such a hidden genius that no one understands. … And Ivanka has been just a great friend, and they do a lot of things behind the scenes that I wish more people knew about, because we’re a better country because they’re in this administration.”
Others floated Dina Powell, a former deputy national security adviser during Trump’s first year as a potential successor to Haley. Powell is currently a top official at Goldman Sachs.
Other potential Haley successors include: Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who previously served as a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N.; and Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Alongside Trump, Haley also said that in the two years she has served as ambassador, the U.S. is now “respected” even if some “countries may not like what we do.” She also said the “U.S. is strong again.”
“I’m not running for 2020,” she added, quelling rumblings that she might try to defeat Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. In fact, she gestured to Trump and said: “I can promise you what I’ll be doing is campaigning for this one. So I look forward to supporting the president in the next election.”
Analysts said even if Haley doesn’t run for any office in 2020, leaving now still makes sense politically.
“The U.N. ambassador job is a fantastic political springboard — it offers a lot of opportunity to call out U.S. enemies and no requirement to speak with distasteful people, and in her case, it gave her foreign policy credentials that she didn’t have,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added: “What would she have gotten for serving two more years? Diminishing returns had set in.”
Haley is also reported to be in significant debt, so she may use the next few years to earn some money in the private sector. The announcement of Haley’s departure also came a day after a watchdog group called on the State Department to investigate Haley’s decision to accept seven free flights for herself and her husband on private planes owned by three South Carolina businessmen. The group raised questions about Haley’s use of the flights and the manner in which she described them in her public disclosure forms.
Several U.S. lawmakers from both parties commended Haley’s tenure as U.N. ambassador.
“Ambassador @nikkihaley has done an outstanding job as United States Ambassador to the United Nations and showed a level of effectiveness rarely seen by someone in this position,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said Haley “has been a clear, consistent, and powerful voice for America’s interests and democratic principles on the world stage. She challenged friend and foe to be better.”
And Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thanked Haley for “her willingness to express moral clarity to the world and to President Trump, and promote American values and leadership on the global stage.”
Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.