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Haley eclipses Tillerson on Trump’s foreign policy ladder





In Donald Trump’s first meeting with Nikki Haley, on Nov. 17, he asked her to serve as his secretary of state. Haley turned him down, according to two sources familiar with the conversation, telling the president-elect that she lacked the requisite foreign policy experience for the job.

The former South Carolina governor ended up instead as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — the first to enjoy Cabinet rank in a Republican administration since Jeane Kirkpatrick during Ronald Reagan’s first term. And with Rex Tillerson conducting his job almost entirely out of public view, Haley has improbably eclipsed the secretary of state as the country’s leading voice on foreign affairs.

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Indeed, Haley has essentially had free rein in the job, cutting an unusually conspicuous media profile and avoiding the tense dealings that U.N. ambassadors often have with State.

“I think in her mind, the key issue that would normally exist — her relationship with the secretary of state — does not exist. She thinks she’s operating completely independently of him,” said a George W. Bush-era State Department official.

Haley, 45, was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party before Trump’s election, which was widely considered a rejection of the more diverse and inclusive version of the GOP she has championed. She was critical of Trump during the Republican primary, when she stumped for Marco Rubio. She also has been out front when it comes to distancing her own views, particularly on Russia, from those of the president.

Her ability to navigate the treacherous waters of the Trump administration has renewed speculation about her political future, generating buzz among Republican operatives that she may be Tillerson’s heir apparent and a future presidential candidate. The White House, through a spokeswoman, denied that Haley was initially offered the secretary of state job.

“She’s perfectly positioned to inherit the State Department,” said a second Bush-era foreign policy hand. “She needs a year or two at the U.N., and then she will get the State Department.”

She’s been more public in her first two months on the job than any of her immediate predecessors, representing the administration on major news shows, including ABC’s “This Week” and CBS’ “Face the Nation,” as well as on Fox News. She sat down last month with NBC’s Matt Lauer.

Haley has seemingly gone out of her way to make a splash. She has a knack for made-for-TV one-liners, like the one she delivered to a rapturous audience last week at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference last week, when she announced there was a “new sheriff in town” at the U.N.

“I wear heels, and it’s not for a fashion statement,” she said. “It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re gonna kick ’em every time.”

That said, Haley’s tenure is otherwise noteworthy for how utterly quotidian her pronouncements would be in the course of any other Republican administration. She has made a point of reassuring traditional American allies like Britain and France, sitting down with their representatives in her first day on the job, and of putting the nation’s adversaries on warning.

“For those that don’t have our backs, we’re taking names,” she said in her first public appearance in the job, which her aides have come to refer to as the “Taking Names” speech.

Haley was an unlikely selection for the role, and not only because of her scant foreign policy credentials.

As governor of South Carolina, she was openly critical of Trump. She used her response to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address in February 2016 to rebuke Trump, who was then the GOP front-runner. When Haley warned her fellow Republicans against the temptation to follow the “siren call of the angriest voices,” Trump responded in kind, tweeting, “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”

If she has not been openly critical of Trump in her new job, she has not hesitated to distinguish her views from his, either.

Based at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Haley has used her physical distance from the president and his aides, and the vacuum created by Tillerson’s absence on the public stage, to sound hardheaded notes on Russia even as a Kremlin-related scandal has dogged the Trump presidency.

“She’s fortunate to be away from Washington so that the fights between the Republican regulars and the Trump White House don’t damage her,” said the former Bush administration foreign policy aide.

“The president has not once called me and said, ‘Don’t beat up on Russia,’ has not once called me and told me what to say,” she told ABC’s Martha Raddatz in an interview that aired Sunday. “I am beating up on Russia.”

Haley’s ability to walk the tightrope between mainstream Republican foreign policy and the topsy-turvy world of the president has proved mutually beneficial, giving the White House a safety valve, on the one hand, and allowing her to win over Trump skeptics, on the other.

In her first speech at the U.N. Security Council, she blasted Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and made clear that sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea would remain in place. The White House pointed to those remarks as it struggled to combat the fallout from the resignation of short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn and defend the president against charges that his aides were soft on Russia.

“His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea,” press secretary Sean Spicer told the White House press corps.

“She has handled herself with decorum and dignity and maintained her credibility over the first 65 days of the administration. Such is the state of the first 100 days that that is an achievement worthy of a gold medal,” said Steve Schmidt, who served as John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008.

Haley’s newfound visibility has GOP operatives sizing up her political prospects, with some musing she may become the next secretary of state and others speculating she’ll challenge Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a Republican primary in 2020.

Yet some say she has made her political ambitions too obvious. One former State Department official went so far as to call her current post a “box-checking exercise” designed to bolster her résumé for a future presidential bid.

Some of the most important members of her political team joined her at the U.N., despite warnings from some longtime advisers that bringing them along would send the wrong message to her fellow diplomats. Her longtime pollster and strategist, Jon Lerner, who had no formal experience in foreign policy but had long maintained an interest in the subject, serves as her deputy ambassador.

How her relationship evolves with Tillerson, especially if he decides to take on a more public role, remains to be seen. Kirkpatrick, for example, repeatedly clashed with Secretary of State Alexander Haig and his assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Elliott Abrams.

“Speaking from my own experience at the U.N., there can only be one secretary of state at a time,” said John Bolton, a longtime State Department official who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. “Otherwise, you end up with an Alexander Haig-Jeane Kirkpatrick relationship, which was, to be anodyne, stressful.”

For now, Haley is taking obvious delight in having a national profile, and with the Republican Party in chaos despite widespread victories in 2016, she may be one of the few long-term winners of the cycle.

“She’s one of the few political leaders,” Schmidt said, “who’s had consistently good moments on the political stage over the past few years.”