The ex-US ambassador to the UN is one of the few Trump officials to leave on good terms and has diligently built up a national profile
By Daniel Strauss, GUARDIANNikki Haley: one of the few women of color in the Republican party’s senior ranks. Photograph: John Lamparski/Getty Images
Nikki Haley has kept busy since leaving her post in the Trump administration as United States ambassador to the United Nations.
A former governor of South Carolina, Haley is often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate for either 2024 or 2028 – depending on whether Donald Trump wins re-election in November.
There has even been speculation that Trump might switch out Vice-President Mike Pence for Haley as his running mate in the hopes of boosting his lagging approval numbers among the broader electorate, though there has been no strong evidence that that will happen.
Either way she has positioned herself as a national leader within the Republican party.
A rare woman of color in the party’s senior ranks, she has been fundraising for Republican congressional candidates as well as in the Senate and gubernatorial arena. She has set up a non-profit organization to boost her policy priorities. She has continued to pen editorials on foreign policy. And she has retained a small, tightly knit orbit of advisers.
Haley is one of the few high-ranking Republicans to leave the Trump administration on good terms. She has pledged to campaign aggressively for the president and has echoed some of the same arguments Trump has made on national topics such as cancel culture, defunding police forces and statue removal, although the tone and frequency between Trump and Haley vary dramatically. At other times she has kept her distance.
After serving in the Trump administration, some top-level officials have receded from public life, taking jobs at thinktanks and other academic institutions or retiring outright. But former and current aides to Haley see her recent moves as a carefully executed plan to stay involved in key Republican policy circles and the national discourse.
“When she left the administration she told the president that she wanted to stay engaged and promote good public policy,” said Tim Chapman, the executive director of Haley’s Stand for America non-profit group, the primary vehicle for Haley’s policy-related initiatives. “SFA is partly a platform for her to do that type of voice, to be engaged in public policy.”
Stand for America is composed of a small team of about six people, including Chapman. The team has a weekly Zoom call with Haley and Chapman spends much of his time coalition-building and working with outside groups and policymakers.
Haley often weighs in on foreign policy or “Democrats’ embrace of socialism” as she did in a February op-ed for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial section. Warning about advancing socialism is a favorite topic for Haley and her organization. A recent mailer sent out to supporters asked them to participate in a “REFERENDUM ON SOCIALISM”. The mailer went on to tick off some liberal policy proposals like free college tuition or the Green New Deal proposed by the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.Haley was that rare senior Trump administration official to get a White House send-off from the president. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
“We’re going to stay focused on that because even though [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee] Joe Biden got the nomination we still think the energy in the party is with the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing,” Chapman said.
Haley has fundraised for almost a dozen Republican Senate candidates, many of them in tough re-election races, and has been a special guest at Republican Governors Association (RGA) events. Last November, Haley authored a book, With All Due Respect, billed as “a first-hand perspective on major national and international matters”. The book covers the end of her governorship as well as her time as ambassador.
All this activity has generated speculation that Haley is taking a textbook approach to running for president. She has foreign policy experience through her time at the United Nations. She has executive and domestic policy experience through almost two terms as governor.
“Nikki Haley’s background as a governor and UN ambassador will make her formidable if she chooses to run in 2024,” said Jon Thompson, a top Republican strategist and a former longtime communications director of the RGA.
“She has a strong résumé of actual governance and international experience, would likely appeal to female suburban voters who Republicans desperately need to attract to win future elections, and has a solid conservative record from her time as governor. Twenty-twenty-four is still a long way off, but she’s making all the right moves now to be in a good position later.”Haley walks out as the permanent observer of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, begins to speak at a UN security council meeting on 15 May 2018. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The knock on Haley is that she has been too calculating in her recent jobs. Democratic foreign policy officials said Haley delegated too much of the job of UN ambassador to her deputies and that all her speeches were political. In his recent book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton framed Haley as out of her depth and more focused on using her ambassadorship to raise her profile.
Haley has surrounded herself with operatives who could lead a presidential campaign. The most commonly mentioned Republican strategist is Jon Lerner, who served as a deputy to Haley at the UN. Chapman previously ran the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation giving him strong ties to influential experts and groups within the Republican party.
The option of running for president partially depends on whether Trump wins re-election.
“If the president’s re-elected I think she’ll keep doing what she’s doing for two years and then start running in earnest,” a former Haley aide said. “If Biden wins it’ll actually make it a bit easier because then she can kind of pound away at Biden from the moment he’s inaugurated and then turn that momentum into a presidential campaign.”
Haley has had to stamp out persistent speculation that she could rejoin the Trump administration as vice-president. The rumor is not out of the realms of possibility. In 2012 Barack Obama’s re-election team looked at switching Biden with Hillary Clinton as the then president’s running mate but that idea was ultimately nixed. For Trump, the hope with putting Haley on the ticket is that she could win over key constituencies Trump is losing.Haley campaigns with senator Kelly Loeffler at a re-election campaign rally on 9 March 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. Photograph: John Bazemore/AP
Some Republicans in the Trump campaign’s orbit wondered if that was happening when the campaign team serving Pence was gutted. But Haley has repeatedly denied any cooperation or rivalry between her and Pence. In August she tweeted “enough of the false rumors. Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support.”
If Trump loses, the Republican primary field for 2024 might get crowded. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Pence have all been mentioned as potential presidential candidates.
When Haley and Pence were both governors their names were floating around as potential RGA vice-chair, recalled former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who was then the sitting vice-chair and poised to take the chairmanship. Walker has strong ties to both Pence and Haley.
Walker remembers that in 2016 Haley called him to ask about the vice-chairmanship. This was before it was clear Pence would be vice-president. Walker noted that Pence might also be interested in the vice-chairmanship. A day later Haley called Walker again saying, “I talked to Mike, he’s fine.” Haley ended up becoming vice-chair for a short time before leaving the governorship to become UN ambassador.