Nikki Haley's surprising resignation on October 4 as US ambassador to the United Nations fueled rumors about the underlying reasons for its suddenness and timing. Was she positioning herself for a future Senate or presidential campaign? The speculation about the forty-six-year-old former South Carolina governor's future was accompanied by a wave of media praise that recast her as a moderate alternative to the hypernationalist commander in chief. "Nikki Haley Will Be Missed" was how the New York Times editorial board headlined its assessment of Haley's time at the United Nations. The editors praised her as a "pragmatic envoy" whose role was "constructive" and who "can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact." They went on to urge President Trump to appoint "a replacement in her mold." The New Yorker, meanwhile, headlined the news as "A Hopeful Sign for Opponents of Trump."
Less than a week before her resignation, Ambassador Haley made a pilgrimage to a decidedly immoderate, highly secretive organization of right-wing, mostly evangelical Republican operatives known as the Council for National Policy, or CNP. Her appearance before the group featured her last major speech before she announced that she would leave her official post. There was no public notice, no transcript. I was present as the only journalist inside the closed-door gathering.
Haley's appearance before the CNP was structured like a campaign fund-raiser, opening with a prepared stump-style speech that segued into an informal question-and-answer session. She riled the crowd with boastful yarns about facing down global evildoers, and revealed that she used the widespread perception of President Trump as erratic and unpredictable to frighten her Chinese counterparts. She once attempted to intimidate the Chinese ambassador with threats of a military invasion of North Korea, she said, warning that she had no idea what her boss was capable of. In a way, Haley had deployed a version of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon's "madman theory," holding up Trump as an unstable actor who might do anything. It seemed that she herself also genuinely had no idea what Trump would do.
Haley had been scheduled to speak to the CNP for a half hour, but as she completed her scripted address and took a seat for an off-the-cuff Q&A with Tony Perkins, the CNP's president, she appeared in no hurry to leave. Lapping up the council's adulation, Haley stayed over her time for an extended series of candid, and at times disturbing, recollections of Trump's campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea. She began by recounting a debate with the president on his planned remarks before the UN General Assembly in September 2017. When she learned that Trump planned to denigrate the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as "Rocket Man," she said she urged him to remove the line.
"I told the president, 'This is the UN; it's a little more formal of a setting than a campaign rally,'" Haley remembered, holding back laughter. But Trump insisted that he liked the ring of the insult, she said.
"So I said, 'Okay, Mr. President, you're the boss,'" Haley recalled. She said that during a meeting with the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, a few hours after Trump's tirade, the African leader casually referred to Kim as "Rocket Man." The exchange was clear proof in her mind of Trump's masterful salesmanship.
While learning on the job at the UN, Haley said, she sought out Henry Kissinger as her personal foreign policy mentor, meeting with him every two months to absorb his lessons. During a tense diplomatic standoff with North Korea, she appeared to have embraced a version of Kissinger and Nixon's notorious "madman theory."
It was September 2, 2017, and North Korea had just embarked on its sixth nuclear test launch. Haley's mission was to ram a resolution through the UN Security Council to sanction the isolated state. This meant that she had to secure abstentions from Russia and China, the two permanent members that maintained relations with Pyongyang. It was a tall task, but as she boasted to the rapt audience at the CNP, she had a few tricks up her sleeve.
"I said to the Russians, 'Either you're with North Korea, or you're with the United States of America,'" Haley recalled. She said she went to the Chinese ambassador and raised the prospect of an American military invasion of North Korea. "My boss is kind of unpredictable, and I don't know what he'll do," she said she warned her Chinese counterpart.
If Haley had disclosed her threat to invade China's neighbor and longtime ally before a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations, she might have been met with finger wags and howls of outrage. But this was the Council for National Policy, and her imperial chest-thumping only deepened its members' sense of admiration. "I tell the president, 'I do this all the time,'" Haley assured the crowd. "And he totally gets it."
Back when Trump was emerging as a presidential front-runner, Haley was not so favorably disposed to the former reality TV star. She used her January 2016 delivery of the Republican response to Obama's last State of the Union address as an opportunity to warn the nation about the dangers of Trump's brand of populism. "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," she said. "We must resist that temptation." Less than a year later, however, when the head of Trump's presidential transition team, Reince Priebus, reached out to her with an enticing job offer, she could hardly resist.