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How Ambassador Nikki Haley Rose To The National Stage


A White House dispute over Russia sanctions has given us a view into the unusual way this administration creates foreign policy. It's also added to gossip and speculation about whether someone from President Trump's own party might challenge him in 2020. At the center of this story is Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations.


On Sunday, Haley went on CBS' "Face The Nation" and said the administration was going to announce new sanctions this week on Russia.


NIKKI HALEY: Russian sanctions will be coming down. Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday if he hasn't already.

CHANG: On Monday, the White House said no decisions had been made. Reports indicated Trump had changed his mind.

SHAPIRO: The next day, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow put the blame on Haley.


LARRY KUDLOW: She got ahead of the curve. She's done a great job. She's a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that.

SHAPIRO: Then came eight words that seemed to freeze the furious Washington news cycle for a moment - this response from Haley to Fox News.


DANA PERINO: In the last half hour, I was able to get in touch with Nikki Haley. And she said, quote, "with all due respect, I don't get confused."

SHAPIRO: Even in Trump's Washington, this is unusual - a member of the Cabinet calling out the White House. Kudlow apologized, and the reaction to I don't get confused has spun out in memes and late-night monologues.


STEPHEN COLBERT: Good for you, Nikki.


COLBERT: Yeah, you hear that? Nikki Haley does not get confused except for that one time she joined the Trump administration.


CHANG: Ouch. For NPR's Michele Kelemen, who covers the State Department, it was not a surprise that Nikki Haley took this on the way she did. Michele has been watching Haley's evolution in her role as U.N. ambassador. And Michele is with us now from the State Department. Hey, Michele. What a week, huh?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah, well, she clearly doesn't want to get Tillersoned (ph). You know, that's...

CHANG: (Laughter).

KELEMEN: ...The new Beltway verb. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, was constantly undercut before he was fired.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELEMEN: Haley is quite the opposite of him.

CHANG: Well, let's go back in time a little bit. Do you remember what you were thinking the moment you learned President Trump named Nikki Haley to be U.N. ambassador?

KELEMEN: Oh, she was really a surprise pick, I mean, not least because she wasn't a Trump supporter. She was the governor of South Carolina, kind of a Tea Party type who supported Marco Rubio over Trump in the primaries.

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

KELEMEN: Yeah. And she even had kind of a dig at Trump when she delivered the GOP response to President Obama's last State of the Union speech.


HALEY: During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.

CHANG: But she still got the gig.

KELEMEN: Yeah. But, you know, on top of that, she didn't really come in with any foreign policy experience.

CHANG: What kind of politician did she already prove herself to be at that point?

KELEMEN: A pretty savvy one. She was in the spotlight when she led a successful effort to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. And it was something that she didn't support before there was a massacre at a black church. But after that, she became a forceful voice. And I remember hearing her talk to CNN about that.


HALEY: We grew up an Indian family in a small town in South Carolina. My father wears a turban. My mother at the time wore a sari. It was hard growing up in South Carolina. And now I feel good because now I know my kids can look up, and there won't be a flag. And it'll be one less reason to divide. And it'll be more reasons for us to come together.

CHANG: That sounds like a very different Nikki Haley than the one I see in the role as U.N. ambassador.

KELEMEN: That's right. When she comes to the U.N., she's kind of the queen of one-liners there.


HALEY: For those that don't have our back, we're taking names.

KELEMEN: You'll often hear her trading jabs with her Russian counterpart.


HALEY: I'm in awe, Vasily, of how you say what you say with a straight face. I really, really am.

KELEMEN: So she's been a tough advocate for the U.S. and against Russia in the Security Council, but that's not always what's happening behind the scenes. She's talked a lot about how she's on a mission to change what she calls the anti-Israel bias. And I remember, Ailsa, how she was really treated as a rock star because of that at the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.


HALEY: I wear heels. It's not for a fashion statement. It's because if I see something wrong, we're going to kick them every single time.


CHANG: Dang (laughter).

KELEMEN: Yeah, that's the way she talks. You know, and again, it plays well for her politically.

CHANG: All right, so this week, there are more questions than ever about what her ultimate ambitions are. Has she said anything about that directly?

KELEMEN: Well, there was a lot of speculation recently. One of her top aides, the guy who runs her office here at the State Department, Jon Lerner, was going to work both for her and for Vice President Pence. So that started raising all this speculation about...

CHANG: Right.

KELEMEN: ...Whether they're becoming too close. And a reporter up at the U.N. asked, should Trump be worried about a Pence-Haley 2020 race? And she shook her head no.


KELEMEN: And she described her relationship with President Trump as perfect.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Ambassador Haley, how's your relationship with President Trump?

HALEY: Perfect.

CHANG: Perfect.

KELEMEN: That was the word she used.

CHANG: (Laughter) What do you think? From your perspective, is their relationship perfect?

KELEMEN: I wouldn't say it's perfect, but I know they've been in close touch. And also, she, you know, laid down some clear markers before joining this administration and reminded an audience at Duke University recently just what those were.


HALEY: It needed to be a Cabinet position because I wanted to have that separation so that I didn't have someone constantly pushing on me. And I said to the president, I'm not going to be a wallflower or a talking head. And he said, Nikki, that's why I want you to do this.

KELEMEN: Yeah, so you can hear that she's trying to be an independent voice here at the same time as being in this administration, which is a very fine line to walk.

CHANG: The question is, can she have it both ways?

KELEMEN: That's right (laughter).

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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