Nikki Haley’s Audacious Bet

The former South Carolina governor’s new book is a gamble that the future of the Republican Party looks a lot like Trump.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Nikki Haley, the bright hope of Trump-skeptical Republicans, has placed a big bet that the Republican future will be almost as Trump-y as the recent Republican past.

Haley numbers among the Republicans most often named as a leader for the post-Trump future. At intervals over the past three years, she has dissented from some of the more bizarre Trump excesses. After Donald Trump gloated over a burglary at the home of the late Representative Elijah Cummings in Baltimore, Haley tweeted, “This is so unnecessary.” The dissents, however, were always circumspect, and never touched on the central scandals of the administration. Haley left her possibilities open for future decision.

The Washington Post today reports that Haley has now decided. In the form of a post-administration book, the former South Carolina governor has placed her chips on Trump.

In the book, which was obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release Tuesday, Haley offers only glancing critiques of her former boss, saying she and others who worked for Trump had an obligation to carry out his wishes since he was the one elected by voters.

The Post report describes an act of strategic betrayal on Haley’s part against her former colleagues Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly sought to recruit her to work around and subvert Trump, but she refused, Haley writes in a new book, “With All Due Respect,” which also describes Tillerson as “exhausting” and imperious and Kelly as suspicious of her access to Trump.

“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” Haley wrote.

“It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing,” Haley wrote of the views the two men held.

It’s unclear exactly what Tillerson and Kelly had in mind; we have only the Post’s summary of Haley’s account. Nor, out of context, can we accurately assess Haley’s own point of view. When she writes that Tillerson and Kelly believed that Trump did not know what he was doing, is she suggesting that she believed Trump did know? And would that be meant as a compliment or criticism? (These days, it is Trump’s defenders who argue he “didn’t know what he was doing” in order to excuse the president’s attempted shakedown of invaded Ukraine to extract political dirt against former Vice President Joe Biden.)

But Haley offers other revelations as well.

Tillerson also told her that people would die if Trump was unchecked, Haley wrote.

Again, who knows how to read that? Tillerson’s famous “fucking moron” assessment of Trump was prompted by Trump’s demand that the United States rebuild its nuclear force to the level of the early 1960s, when the U.S. fielded some 30,000 nuclear warheads as compared with the approximately 2,800 of today. Maybe Tillerson was right? Haley apparently does not express a view one way or the other.

What she does apparently express is a determination to be regarded as a Trump loyalist. The book’s tale-bearing against Tillerson and Kelly certainly burnishes that credential. So even more does her interview with the Post simultaneous with its release arguing the pro-Trump case on Ukraine and impeachment. Haley delicately distances herself from Trump’s extortion scheme and House Republican fantasies that Trump was engaged in any kind of honest investigation of corruption. Otherwise, though, she’s all in for Trump.

There was no heavy demand insisting that something had to happen. So it’s hard for me to understand where the whole impeachment situation is coming from, because what everybody’s up in arms about didn’t happen …

So, do I think it’s not good practice to talk to foreign governments about investigating Americans? Yes. Do I think the president did something that warrants impeachment? No, because the aid flowed.

And, in turn, the Ukrainians didn’t follow up with the investigation …

Haley may have a very short-term calculation in mind, the 2020 Republican vice-presidential nomination. Trump has long been rumored to wish to replace Vice President Mike Pence with Haley on the ticket. Haley’s book and interview suggest she may be campaigning hard for the 2020 slot. At the same time, she’s making the same bet on the 2024 future being placed by Pence, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by senators such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and by governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida: There is no percentage in even whispering a criticism of anything Trump says or does. On some issues, such as the sellout of the Kurds, it is permissible to assert a diverging position—but even then, there must be no direct or even indirect criticism of Trump. He is the party’s great unquestionable.

All of which raises the question: Is he also the Republican Party’s political version of the financial derivatives that nearly wrecked the U.S. banking system back in 2008? Twelve years ago, the derivatives were seen as safe and solid by all respectable and responsible financial analysts. Only a few eccentrics and outliers expressed doubt, a story memorably told in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. And then the things went bust—and the respectable and responsible never saw it coming.

Every ambitious national-level Republican is building the rest of his or her career on the assumption that come 2024, the Trump loyalists will continue to run the show. Surely there ought to be an outlier like one of Michael Lewis’s characters, willing to risk that actually Trump may come crashing down—and that Republicans will soon be wondering: “Why did nobody warn us?”

Tillerson and Kelly tried to raise the alarm, but they are not running for office. Haley is, and she first rejected them and then outed them. In terms of amoral calculation, the odds seem with her. But from Teddy Roosevelt to Harry Truman to Barack Obama to Donald Trump himself, the top job has again and again been won by bold-hearted defiers of the odds. Haley isn’t one of them, and we’ll all soon see how far that half-heartedness will elevate her.