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Renée Graham

Nikki Haley plays the long game, no matter the cost

Ambassador Nikki Haley during a UN Security Council emergency meeting concerning Syria on April 14.
Ambassador Nikki Haley during a UN Security Council emergency meeting concerning Syria on April 14. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/File

NIKKI HALEY is not confused.

She’s not confused about the White House’s shift away from more sanctions against Russia nor about her public refusal be a scapegoat for this mess of an administration.

Haley, the United Nations ambassador, is also not confused about public perception and how it may affect her undeclared, but evidently simmering presidential ambitions.

Few seem as determined as Haley to emerge unscathed from the wreckage of the Trump presidency. While other administration members are soiled by one scandal after another — if they’ve managed to survive this long — she presents herself as singularly focused, and sailing above the unending fray.

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Her recent willingness to buck against the Trump sycophancy make for great optics, yes. But don’t get duped. Haley isn’t as interested in challenging this caustic administration as she is in collecting favorable sound bites for her future march to the White House.

That’s why giddy reactions to Haley’s clapback at Larry Kudlow, Trump’s National Economic Council director, should be kept in check. After Haley said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that new Russian sanctions were forthcoming, the White House said she got it wrong. Unbeknownst to her, the administration had already assured Russian officials that there would be no additional sanctions for now.

By Tuesday, Kudlow went further. “She got ahead of the curve,” he told reporters. “She’s done a great job, she’s a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that.”

Haley quickly released an eight-word statement to Fox News’ Dana Perino: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”

Following Haley’s mic drop, Kudlow did something rare for this administration — he apologized, publicly and privately to Haley. “She was certainly not confused,” Kudlow told The New York Times. “I was wrong to say that — totally wrong.” The original policy, he said, was changed without Haley’s knowledge.

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As usual, the White House was chaotic, and Kudlow came off looking like a dolt. Yet for Haley it was all thumbs-up tweets and glowing headlines like, “White House Throws Nikki Haley Under the Bus, She Flips It Over.”

S.E. Cupp, a conservative commentator, cranked the hyperbole to 11. On a recent episode of her HLN show, she called Haley Trump’s “strongest and most competent Cabinet official,” adding, “I, for one, hope she is looking to run for president in the near future.”

All this is unfolding as CNN is reporting that the GOP isn’t ready to back Trump’s 2020 reelection. From Haley’s perch that may look like daylight. Of course, I’m old enough to remember 2016, when the majority of reticent Republicans ended up endorsing Trump.

Haley was once one of those anti-Trump Republicans. In her GOP response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Haley warned against following “the siren call of the angriest voices” in the party. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley added, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

Yet after she became UN ambassador, Haley defended Trump’s travel ban that targeted majority Muslim nations.

That Haley would prop up the policies of a man whose demagoguery she once openly condemned underlines her untrustworthiness. This has been apparent since Haley’s first moment in the national spotlight, during one of the darkest events in recent American history.

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After nine African-Americans were murdered by an avowed white supremacist in their Charleston, S.C. church in 2015, Haley, then the state’s governor, resisted calls to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds. She’d always defended the flag’s presence — until the angry post-massacre backlash threatened to swamp her political future. Only then did she order the flag taken down, claiming it “never should have been there.”

Politicians are born shape-shifters. Still, Haley’s malleable principles are just as odious as Trump’s complete lack of them. She’s angling to be a point of sanity in this maelstrom, and deserves a nod for calling out the White House and Kudlow. That doesn’t mean her attempts to garner personal political currency should be overlooked.

Under Trump, we crave competent and compassionate leadership. Yet as thirsty as we may be, we should be mindful of diving into a mirage that only looks like water.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham