South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the president-elect’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, made it clear during her confirmation hearing Wednesday that she disagrees with Donald Trump quite a bit regarding U.S. foreign policy, from Russia to NATO to the United Nations itself.
As such, her three-hour hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee went fairly smoothly. Even one of her harshest critics, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said near the end of his questions to Haley that he believed they would “have a constructive relationship going forward.”
But that was after she’d put distance between herself and President-elect Trump, whose Cabinet she will join if she is confirmed. Where they differed: Trump has called NATO obsolete. She called it “an important alliance.” He’s dismissed the importance of the United Nations and talked about cutting American funding of the organization. She said “slash and burn” diplomacy didn’t work and should be avoided.
Trump recently implied that he’d begin his administration trusting Russian President Vladimir Putin as much as he would German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he’s been largely dismissive of allegations that Putin directed an attempt to disrupt the recent U.S. elections. Haley said Russia had committed war crimes in Syria, tried to interfere in the U.S. elections and had wrongly seized Crimea and invaded Ukraine, while Germany was an important ally.
The hearing was a sharp departure from the rancorous confirmation hearings for several other Cabinet choices, including those of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. — the attorney general nominee – and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson — nominated as secretary of state.
Haley addressed her inexperience – a key concern for many Democrats – in her opening statement, and the topic wasn’t brought up much after that. Haley said her lack of formal foreign policy experience meant she would bring “an outsider’s look” to the role.
“International diplomacy is a new area for me. I don’t claim that I know everything. But diplomacy itself is not new to me,” she told the committee. “Like most government agencies, the United Nations could benefit from a fresh set of eyes.”
In her opening statement, Haley questioned whether U.S. funding of the institution is justified.
“We contribute 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget, far more than any other country,” she said. “Are we getting what we pay for?” But throughout the hearing she said cutting the entire funding for the organization would not be in the best interests of the United States. She said she believed targeted cuts might have an impact but that they should be based in problems with the process that couldn’t be addressed, not in the results of votes.
At one point, she suggested that concerns about Trump’s positions would be best put to Trump. And she noted that Trump has shown himself willing to change his mind if the case presented to him is persuasive. Still, on Russia she was fairly direct: “Russia is trying to show their muscle. It’s what they do. I don’t think we can trust them.”
Beyond that, she was pushed on climate change. On several occasions, she said, “Climate change will always be on the table.”
Still, later, she said, “Global warming is one of the threats we face, not the primary threat.” She added that, regarding climate change, “We should always do what is right, but we don’t want to do it at the peril of our industries and our economy.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., suggested the foreign policy statements from the president-elect appear to be a “ muddled message. . . . Would that all change once he is in office?”
“Not all of it will change,” she said, without disagreeing with the “muddled” assessment.
Haley, 44, was introduced by her two biggest boosters on Capitol Hill, South Carolina Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.
“You can learn the details of foreign policy, but you either have the ability to persuade people . . . or you don’t,” Graham said. “America’s voice in the U.N. needs to be strong. It needs to be somebody who can bring people together.”
Graham called Haley “the right person at the right time” to lead the U.N. and “one of the most compelling stories in American politics.”
The daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, Haley was the first woman and minority to be chosen for a Cabinet-level post by Trump after his election. Despite her lack of direct foreign-policy experience, Trump said he’d chosen her because she was “a proven dealmaker” who would be a “great leader representing us on the world stage.”
Scott spoke of her leadership after the racially motivated mass shooting in a Charleston church in 2015, which led to her convincing the state Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Capitol.
“The United Nations will be better because Nikki Haley will be a part of it,” Scott said.
Haley was critical of Trump during the presidential campaign. She used her high-profile position delivering the Republican State of the Union response in 2016 to urge her party to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices.”
Haley also had knocked Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., saying in the nationally televised address, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Her husband, Michael Haley, who served in Afghanistan with the South Carolina National Guard, and her son, Nalin, sat behind her at the hearing.