As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has been the de facto spokeswoman for President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda and one of the administration’s most visible rising stars. That may be about to change.
The former Republican governor from South Carolina gladly filled the public relations void left by the notoriously media-averse Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Now, Haley could find herself competing for the spotlight once Tillerson’s replacement, current Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, is confirmed for that job.
Like Haley, Pompeo joined the Trump administration from the world of politics. He was a Republican Congressman from Kansas.
Also like Haley, who many expect to run for president some day, Pompeo has long been rumored to have his eye on a higher office.
Ultimately, with Pompeo as Secretary of State, Haley could find herself thrust into the role most typically occupied by U.N. ambassadors: As subservient to and deferential of the Secretary of State and his or her own vision for U.S. foreign policy.
Over the past year, Haley has benefited from a unique set of circumstances.
She is a fully empowered U.N. ambassador with a Cabinet-level ranking and a seat on the National Security Council. U.N. ambassadors in Republican administrations haven’t traditionally enjoyed these prestige postings, which have made them by default far less influential than the Secretaries of State to whom they are expected to report.
Based in New York City, Haley has been able to largely insulate herself from White House dysfunction. Though Tillerson’s State Department made some efforts to rein in Haley last year — at one point asking her to screen major policy statements with the White House before delivering them — those overtures appeared to fall flat.
Trump’s frequent lack of clarity in his foreign policy positions, and Tillerson’s disinclination to clarify them, also created an opening for Haley to define the administration’s positions on her own.
“Few recent U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. have carved out quite as powerful a political role as Haley,” said Richard Gowan, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a U.N. expert
“Haley is an autonomous player with her own political base ... (and) has taken advantage of Trump’s chaotic management style to carve out a more political space for herself and sideline Tillerson,” he added.
Pompeo could have a more harmonious relationship with Trump, making it so that Haley is no longer needed to help explain where the administration stands.
“(Trump) and Director Pompeo are on the same wavelength,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a close Pompeo friend and at one time a potential contender to run the CIA.
“There’s some well known difference of opinion the president and Secretary Tillerson have had — the Iran nuclear deal, the Qatar question, on the Jerusalem embassy,” the senator continued. “I think it’s important the Secretary of State and the president are on the same wavelength and I think the president now will be with this Secretary of State.”
Haley has also stood out as a member of the administration most willing to articulate the country’s moral compass as defined by her party. A defining moment in her tenure so far was in April, when she dared fellow members of the U.N. Security Council to confront enlarged photos of young Syrian children dead or dying from a chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that presided over confirmation hearings for Haley and Tillerson, said he hoped Pompeo would join Haley in using his platform to advocate for human rights. That could in turn end up sidelining Haley.
“One of my real concerns about Secretary Tillerson was his hesitation, at times even his refusal, to use the language of values to talk about the importance of human rights ... something that previous secretaries of both parties have made a core part of their message around the world,” Coons said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, didn’t think Pompeo was interested in claiming the public spotlight or upstaging Haley, even though his former delegation colleague has been mulling opportunities for political advancement for years — at one point even weighing a possible Senate primary challenge against him.
“Certainly Ambassador Haley has the skill set that makes her a good spokesperson, but I would see Mike Pompeo as the guy who is working to get the job done as compared to promoting that job in the national media,” said Moran.
There’s a possibility that Pompeo is more aggressive in quieting Haley, viewing her as many Secretaries of State have regarded their U.N. ambassadors: As threats.
David Bosco, a professor of international studies at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, said at the time of Haley’s nomination that her seat on the National Security Council could complicate her relationship with any Secretary of State who is insecure about consolidating clout.
Still, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, didn’t predict interpersonal conflict.
“I can’t imagine anybody not getting along with Nikki Haley,” said Roberts. “I think they’ll be fine.”
On Tuesday morning, Haley tweeted her congratulations to Pompeo. Her office did not follow up with McClatchy on a request for further comment.