WASHINGTON — Nikki Haley stunned the world on Tuesday when she resigned as US ambassador to the United Nations. One of the few popular senior officials in the Trump administration, Haley seemed safe in her diplomatic post. Which meant that once political Washington had absorbed the initial shock news of her imminent departure, there was one big question: Why was she stepping down?
In brief remarks in the Oval Office beside US President Donald Trump, the South Carolina native said that after two years in the high-profile position, she realized it was simply her time. And since that was hard to fathom, she tried to preempt the inevitable speculation:
“For all of you who are going to ask about 2020, no I am not running for 2020,” Haley said. “I can promise you what I’ll be doing is campaigning for this one,” she added, pointing to Trump.
The fiercely pro-Israel ambassador –who became an AIPAC rock star when she told the lobby’s 2017 policy conference there was “a new sheriff in town” — often castigated the world body for its “anti-Israel bias.”
As of now, it’s unclear who will fill her shoes. Ivanka Trump announced on Twitter she would not take the job; rapper Kanye West has not ruled it out.
As a successor is deliberated upon, Washington’s chattering classes are theorizing feverishly to make sense of Haley’s surprise exit. Here are the four most-discussed hypotheses as to why she’s leaving Turtle Bay.
Despite Haley trying to nip this in the bud, there’s a high level of suspicion that she’s stepping off the stage now to return in a leading role in a few years. The Washington Post ran a story billing her as a “rising star” who could potentially mount a formidable challenge to Trump in 2020.
But at age 46, she could be playing an even longer game than that. The Washington Examiner published an op-ed that conjectured she would seek the White House in 2024, either as a successor to Trump, or challenging a Democratic incumbent who beat him in 2020.
Regardless of whether Trump wins re-election, the Republican nomination in 2024 will be open. Vice President Mike Pence will be associated very closely with the controversial and divisive president. But Haley leaving now, after she’s already gained the benefits of working in the administration, gives her the wiggle room to try to distance herself from Trump, if that should play to her political advantage.
Abandoning a sinking ship
Practically from the get-go, Trump’s presidency has been ensnared in legal trouble. Most notably, he is dealing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives and whether he’s obstructed justice.
It’s widely expected that Mueller’s probe will ramp up after the midterm elections, and if a blue wave materializes, and Democrats regain the House and possibly even the Senate, Congressional investigations will intensify, as well. Haley possibly wanted to leave the administration before it faces even more scrutiny.
Gotta make a buck
One theory that circulated quickly was that Haley simply needed money. It’s a well-known reality that lots of ambitious people take high-profile government jobs with the expectation that a payout will come after. Scores of former DC officials leave for lobbying jobs and television gigs. Some become consultants. Others, who have enough clout and resonance, get lucrative book deals.
Most of Trump’s senior-level appointments came from the private sector and are independently wealthy. Haley, on the other hand, has spent much of her adult life as an elected official. As South Carolina governor, she and her husband reported an income of $170,000 in 2015, according to CNN.
But in a 2018 financial disclosure, Haley reported a number of debts, including between $25,000 and $65,000 in credit card debt, and a mortgage of more than $1 million. Money Magazine estimated her debt could range from $525,000 to $1.1 million. Haley also has two children — one of whom is in college with the other on the way there.
Some have suggested that Haley may have been inclined to leave her life as UN ambassador for a seven-figure salary and other opportunities in the private sector, where she could clear her debts in short order.
She lost her influence inside the White House
Since Trump assumed office, Haley was considered one of the “grownups in the room,” i.e., a voice of moderation who edged toward the policies of the Republican establishment.
While a forceful voice at the UN, she was allied with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster on a number of foreign policy issues.
In a possibly telling episode last spring, Haley announced the US would impose sanctions on Russia. One of Trump’s advisers, the newly installed economic adviser Larry Kudlow, rebuffed her statement and chalked it up to “some momentary confusion.”
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley told Fox News shortly thereafter.
Later in the spring, Trump signaled a dramatic foreign policy shift by appointing prominent hawks to key positions, such as Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser.
Haley had famously accepted her position as UN envoy under a few conditions. She wanted to be able to speak her mind and not be simple window dressing in the administration, she told Trump.
While Haley thanked the president in her resignation letter for keeping his promise to fulfill those terms, many have speculated that the Pompeo and Bolton worldview won the day at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that she no longer had real influence anymore.
In this theory, Haley may have strategically decided to leave now, on her own terms, before she was booted out, cognizant that many administration officials — Reince Preibus, Sean Spicer, Tillerson, McMaster, et al — had to leave under humiliating circumstances.
Or, of course, Haley may have simply decided to adopt Jerry Seinfeld’s dictum: always exit the stage while they’re still clapping.