Politics & Government

Nikki Haley, usually a U.N. star, steps aside this week for Trump

President Donald Trump, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, arrives at the United Nations Monday.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, arrives at the United Nations Monday. AP

The United Nations headquarters in New York City has unquestionably been Nikki Haley’s domain – except for this week, when the United States’ U.N. ambassador must blend into the background.

Haley’s ability to play a supporting role will be tested this week as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attend the U.N. General Assembly, an annual gathering of the world’s top leaders and their diplomats.

“Her job is to essentially be the chief logistician and event manager, to really ensure that Trump and Pence sort of move seamlessly from event to event and all their talks go smoothly and satisfactorily,” said Richard Gowan, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and an expert on U.N. operations. “It’s a supporting role, not a starring role.”

That’s a new role for Haley, who has become accustomed being a star – whether by accident or by design.

An Indian-American Republican, Haley’s six-year tenure as South Carolina’s governor was accompanied by constant speculation about her political aspirations and career ambitions – speculation that keeps growing. She has always been comfortable in front of the camera, just recently posing for the cover of Time magazine’s edition on powerful women.

Her star power has been able to rise and thrive at the U.N. largely in the absence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has overwhelmingly eschewed the spotlight. Pence, meanwhile, has devoted more time navigating domestic policy than he has world affairs. And Trump, for his part, has made comments, both off-hand and scripted, that have caused uneasiness and confusion in the international community.

Players on the world stage have consistently turned to Haley for clarity and found a sharp, well-spoken public administration spokeswoman. She has stepped in to fill a void.

“We have had many ambassadors to the U.N. with a prominent public presence, so Haley is hardly unique in that regard,” Peter Feaver, a national security official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in an email to McClatchy. “But her presence has thus far been a clear asset for the administration. “Given Secretary Tillerson’s evident desire to downplay the traditional public diplomacy role of the secretary of state position, the Trump administration is benefiting from Haley’s adeptness.”

At the General Assembly this week, Haley could be a focal point, intentionally or not. Many lawmakers already view her as a voice of reason in an administration that often lacks a coherent foreign policy message.

Earlier this year, former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said she and her colleagues were reaching out to Haley on rather than Tillerson because Haley seemed more “hands on.”

“I have an awful lot of concerns about the administration’s positions and everything the administration has done foreign policy-wise,” added Rep. Karen Bass of California, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. “With her, I did not feel those concerns.”

Haley’s also been praised by some prominent conservative activists for her strong support of Israel at the United Nations, a body some see as excessively and unfairly critical of the U.S. ally.

Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America who has close ties to GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, is a Tillerson critic and has grown disappointed in some of Trump’s policies relating to Israel and terrorism. He gushed, however, over Haley’s championing of the important U.S. ally, describing in an interview the praise he heaped on Haley at a recent dinner party.

"Noah, the Bible says, was not an extraordinary man, but in comparison to the corrupt society he lived in...he resisted," said Klein, referencing the biblical story of the Noah and the ark.

Describing his conversation with Haley, he continued, "'What's extraordinary is, you're surrounded by bigoted anti-Semites who hate Israel, you have not been tainted or pressured by these people...you're the Noah of the U.N.,' I told her to her pretty face."

Another dimension to Haley’s challenge this week is making sure she doesn’t overshadow a president who famously doesn’t like to share the limelight, who reportedly let go of his chief strategist, the controversial Steve Bannon, in part because he was getting too much publicity and claiming too much credit.

Observers don’t fault Haley for making headlines and sources close to her insist she doesn’t act without clearance from her administration bosses. Yet staying on the fringes of the action this week may not be possible for Haley, especially if Trump creates a situation where damage control becomes necessary.

“It can be an awkward time for an ambassador of the U.N. because they have worked on cultivating messages and relationships … the day-to-day business of being a diplomat at the U.N. is a very delicate endeavor, everything is carefully phrased and thought through, and that is not how an elected politician necessarily works,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute at Pace University and an expert on the U.N.

However, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign who has written extensively about national security, warned that Haley's appointment, which he praised, can only go so far in making up for what he sees as an erratic president.

"Perhaps, at her post at the United Nations, Haley can help avert some harm being done to the United States by this administration. But if so, it will only be at the margins," he said. "Trump has already done incalculable damage to America's standing in the world and, no matter what happens in the U.N. General Assembly [this] week, there is no stopping our downward trajectory as long as an unstable ignoramus is calling the shots from the White House."

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, Haley suggested she wasn’t concerned about Trump creating a mess for her to clean up after things settle back down at the U.N. and her bosses head back to the nation’s capital.

She said the speech the president is prepared to deliver to the General Assembly on Tuesday morning “slaps the right people … hugs the right people and he comes out with the U.S. being very strong in the end.”

That is, assuming the president sticks to the script.

Emma Dumain: @emma_dumain

Katie Glueck: @katieglueck