Nikki Haley’s advice to an anonymous official offers a clue to her resignation

The US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will be leaving her post at the end of the year.

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In yet another shock development within the chaotic Trump administration, the president has confirmed that the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will be leaving her post at the end of the year, confirming early morning media reports that she was resigning. Haley, a 46-year-old former governor of South Carolina, was one of just a handful of women within Donald Trump’s cabinet and earned a reputation as one of the more independent figures within the administration; someone who did not hide her occasional disagreements with the president. At a press conference, Haley tried to quash speculation that she was considering running for president in 2020 and said she planned to help campaign for Trump’s re-election. Which leaves an intriguing question unanswered: why did she resign?

From the beginning of her appointment to the UN, Haley broke with convention, warning that the US would be “taking names” of allies who did not support them in the Security Council and pledging that she would be aggressive her pursuit of UN reform. She immediately cut US contributions to the UN by $285m, criticising the organisation’s “inefficiency and overspending” and echoing her boss when she warned that she would make sure that “we will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of”. She also withdrew the US from the UN Human Rights Council, which she described as a “cesspool of political bias” and a “protector of human rights abusers”. An ardent political supporter of Israel, she cut US aid to UNWRA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency.

Even so, Haley remained one of the more traditional Republicans within the Trump administration, someone who, unlike the president, demonstrated a firm grasp of policy issues and a professional demeanour. She took a harder line than the president on Russia, which she excoriated on several occasions over its military involvement in Syria. In April, she announced to the media that the US would be imposing a new round of sanctions on Russia in response to a chemical attack in Syria earlier in the year. When the White House tried to pedal back, with one official suggesting that perhaps Haley had become “confused” over the administration’s policy, Haley was decisive and firm in her response. “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” she said. The incident bolstered her reputation as someone who would not be pushed around by the president, who places high value on loyalty.

The daughter of immigrants from India, Haley was the first woman and first member of a minority group to become governor of South Carolina. A charismatic figure, her national profile was boosted when she removed the Confederate flag from the State House in the aftermath of a deadly attack on a black church in Charleston. During the 2016 presidential campaign she told reporters how important it was that a US president is even-tempered and not someone who will “get mad at someone just because they criticise him. We would really have a world war if that happens”. She also criticised Trump’s immigration policies, dismissing a wall as pointless and warning against attacks on legal immigrants, like her parents.

In the press conference announcing her departure, Haley said she wanted a break after two years working at the UN – which seems a cop-out. Perhaps she is indeed considering a presidential run, in which case her youth, charisma, independence and deep-red Republicanism will likely stand her in good stead, and at some point her association with Trump will become a liability rather than an asset.

Or perhaps an op-ed for the Washington Post on 7 September offers more clues to her thinking. In the piece, a criticism of the anonymous official who wrote for the New York Times about how he was resisting the Trump administration from within, Haley said that she did not always agree with Trump and did not shy away from telling him so. “I proudly serve in this administration, and I enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction it is taking the country. But I don’t agree with the president on everything. When there is disagreement, there is a right way and a wrong way to address it. I pick up the phone and call him or meet with him in person,” she wrote. Then she wrote about the duty of dissenting officials: “If you disagree with some policies, make your case directly to the president. If that doesn’t work, and you are truly bothered by the direction of the administration, then resign on principle.” 

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.