The United Nations ambassador managed to resign on her own terms and get a glowing sendoff from the president along the way.
Rumors circulated for months that President Donald Trump was poised to fire his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, before he finally did so in March. The same was true of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, whom Trump ultimately dismissed later that same month. And Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin hung by a thread for weeks before the president fired him in a tweet.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley flipped the script on Tuesday, working closely with the president on a resignation announcement that was kept secret from most White House aides. The move allowed the president to maintain control of the news cycle — and allowed Haley to leave on good terms with the temperamental commander in chief.
In the Oval Office, with Haley by his side, Trump told reporters that Haley had notified him six months ago that she was likely to depart at the end of the year. “She said, ‘You know, maybe at the end of the year … I want to take a little break,” Trump said. “So, Nikki, I just wanted to tell you that we will miss you.”
It was a far cry from the unceremonious defenestrations that the president has bestowed on other members of his Cabinet. In fact, the president spent nearly 30 minutes heaping praise on Haley, telling the news media that she has been “very special to me.”
While several White House aides said they were shocked both by Haley’s resignation, as well as the timing of the announcement — a month before November’s midterm elections — two people familiar with her thinking said she did not want her departure to appear to be a response to Republican losses in the midterms, should they happen. Nor did she want her exit to seem to be propelled by the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is expected to conclude in the new year, or by any other negative event.
In a letter to the president dated Oct. 3, Haley said her resignation will take effect at the end of the calendar year.
“Right now is a good news time for the administration coming off of the Kavanaugh wins, coming off of the trade wins. If you know that you’re intending to leave at the end of the year, it’s a good time to leave when things are up,” one of these people said.
Haley’s efforts to control the terms and shape the story of her resignation offer an illuminating example of the way she has, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tightly controlled the narrative about events in which she is involved. Her efforts also show how intensely protective she is of her personal brand.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow was on the receiving end of a searing smackdown after he suggested Haley was “momentarily confused” when she announced on a Sunday morning news show that the Trump administration was imposing fresh sanctions on Russia. “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley said in a statement that reverberated across the internet — and prompted an apology from Kudlow.
She was similarly aggressive about beating back a rumor spread by the New York journalist Michael Wolff that she was having an affair with the president, calling it a “highly offensive” and “disgusting” insinuation. While the pushback rankled White House aides, who groused that it drew attention to an unsubstantiated rumor for which Wolff was already being criticized for spreading, her remarks led to a high-drama segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe“ that culminated with co-host Mika Brzezinski tossing Wolff off the set.
“You’re slurring a woman,” Brzezinski told Wolff, who had refused to back down. “We’re done.”
Haley has been one of the handful of administration officials who has managed to publicly contradict the president and survive in the administration, taking a hawkish stance on Russia from the outset of her tenure and calling Russian election hacking an “act of warfare.”
She also broke from the administration when she said last December the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct deserve a hearing. “They should be heard, and they should be dealt with,” she said at the time. “And I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up.”
Though Trump remained fond of Haley to the end, her political ambition has at times irritated him, according to a former White House official. While the president has never confronted her about it directly, Haley appeared to nod to that fact in her resignation letter, stating that she would not be a candidate for public office in 2020. Never-Trump Republicans are nonetheless hopeful that she will have a change of heart.
“As I may have said before: The Nikki Haley 2020 GOP primary challenge to Trump is going to be lit,” Bill Kristol, the editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, wrote on Twitter, referencing Emmanuel Macron, president of France. “Macron resigned from Cabinet in 2016. Elected president a year later. Will be two years for Nikki.”
There were other factors driving Haley’s decision to depart. Early in the administration, Haley took on an outsized public role as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. because then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson largely avoided the media. That role has diminished under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has a strong relationship with the news media and is a strong advocate on the president’s behalf. There was a sense among her allies that Haley could not move up in the administration — so she decided to bow out, though the president said Tuesday he hopes she will return to the administration in a different post.
Haley has spent almost a decade in public service, serving for six years as governor of South Carolina before assuming the U.N. ambassadorship. Though she did not specify her post-administration plans, she said she intends to become a private citizen for the time being, and several of her allies speculated she is likely to join the private sector and make money. Her 2018 financial disclosure report indicated that she was carrying more than $1.5 million in debt, though a source familiar with her finances said her current debt level, which will be disclosed at the end of the year, is less than $500,000.
In her resignation letter, Haley made clear that she has no plans to keep quiet when she becomes a private citizen for the first time in eight years: “I expect to continue to speak out from time to time on important public policy matters,” she said.