Nikki Haley's dead end
Within minutes of the news that President Trump had accepted U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's resignation, her perennial boosters from within the anti-Trump neoconservative ranks were salivating at what the resignation might portend.
Re-upping from a few months ago. https://t.co/232vC6cj9e
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) October 9, 2018
Macron resigned from Cabinet in 2016. Elected president a year later. Will be two years for Nikki.
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) October 9, 2018
But while the timing of her announcement was peculiar, there is no evidence to support the notion that her departure was in any sense a pointed rebuke of her boss. Instead, between Haley's resignation and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)'s transformation into a pro-Kavanaugh attack dog, we should finally be able to lay such fantasies to rest once and for all.
When Haley joined the Trump administration, it was widely understood as an olive branch extended to the #NeverTrump faction of the party. After all, she had clearly if indirectly criticized Trump in her 2016 response to Barack Obama's State of the Union, had endorsed Marco Rubio, and was firmly understood to be a George W. Bush-style conservative: pro-immigration, pro-free trade, and pro-aggressive democracy promotion — all things Trump ran foursquare against.
But while she subtly touted herself as someone capable of nudging Trump away from his worst impulses, this was mostly sensible positioning for herself, both as a diplomat and as a mover and shaker within the Republican Party. In practice, her tenure at the United Nations was marked by a high degree of comity between her goals and Trump's: They both favored taking a tougher line on Iran, a more accommodating line on Israel, and a critical line toward the U.N. itself on both financial and political matters.
That partly reflects the fact that there's more continuity between Trump's nationalism and Bush's unilateralism than is widely acknowledged by Trump's neoconservative critics. Both, after all, favored a distinctly undiplomatic approach to diplomacy and a skepticism of the very idea of international law. But it also reflects the simple fact that Cabinet officials serve the president who appointed them, and are chosen because their boss is convinced they will do what he asks.
So Haley's presence in the Trump Cabinet was less disruptive than her admirers fantasized it might be. And her departure is probably not a sign of either a break with the administration or a radical change to come. Rather, it likely reflects a realization on Haley's part that her job had become a professional dead end.
With Mike Pompeo and John Bolton replacing Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster as heads of the State Department and National Security Council, respectively, Trump now had two foreign policy advisers whose instincts he trusted. Haley's role inevitably grew more circumscribed, and the prospects of moving up within the foreign policy hierarchy were now extremely limited. It makes all the sense, under those circumstances, for her to look for an opportunity to exit on good terms. She certainly said everything she could in her remarks with Trump yesterday to keep those terms positive.
So why leave now? The optics of announcing her departure before the midterms are peculiar, but there are any number of possible explanations. Perhaps she wanted to leave before the investigation into her travels by private jet became a news story. Perhaps making the announcement before the midterms makes it clearer that she's leaving of her own accord, whereas making the announcement after the midterms would make it look like the president waited until then to clear her out. Perhaps something specific happened behind the scenes between her and other members of the foreign policy team that made it clear to her that her position had eroded, and she figured she might as well get out sooner than later. Perhaps Trump wanted to be able to make headlines about her successor at a timing of his choosing.
It's likely impossible to know — and it normally wouldn't really matter. It only does in this case because of the persistent conviction in some quarters that this isn't really the Trump administration, that with the right people around him America can make it through this presidency without having altered course in any fundamental way. But while the ship of state turns slowly, it is turning, and it's the individual at the helm who sets the course.
That having been said, check with me again when Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns.