Nikki Haley Just Can’t Quit Trump

(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

IN THE WEEK SINCE the New Hampshire primary, Nikki Haley has sharpened her criticism of Donald Trump. On Monday, she was asked why. In an interview with Haley, CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin pointed out that for months, Chris Christie had spoken bluntly about Trump, but Haley hadn’t. Now, Sorkin observed, Haley seems to be going after Trump. Why the shift?

Haley had a simple answer. When the Republican field was full of candidates, she explained, “it didn’t make sense” to focus on Trump. “I had others I had to get out of the way,” she said. But “now it’s a two-person race,” she told Sorkin. So “now I’m telling the truth about him.”

It was a classic Haley moment, exposing her habit of selective candor. Contrary to what she tells audiences—“I’ve always spoken in hard truths”—Haley got where she is by not telling the truth about Trump. Now she says she’ll be straight with us. But she won’t. Haley is doing what she has always done: ducking and hedging to keep her options open.

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FOR THE PAST YEAR, Haley has finessed the Trump problem—how to consolidate the non-Trump vote without alienating Trump’s supporters—through strategic ambiguity. “Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she tells crowds. That line appeals to voters who blame Trump for his impeachments and indictments. But note that she leaves an opening (“wrongly”) for those who think he’s innocent.

And Haley’s passive formulation—“Chaos follows him”—is comically evasive. As Christie often pointed out, it’s like remarking that burning buildings follow an arsonist. Haley still uses that line in rallies and interviews. But she’s beginning to acknowledge that Trump causes the chaos.

The transition has been awkward, because Haley is so accustomed to passive language. On Meet the Press this Sunday, she fretted that Trump “surrounds himself in chaos,” implying that the causation might somehow be indirect. On Monday, she told Fox News that he was “surrounded by temper tantrums,” as though somebody else were at fault.

But Haley is now at last admitting, for the most part, that Trump is the problem. On Sunday, at a rally in South Carolina, she said of his nasty victory speech in New Hampshire: “That is who he is at his core.” On Monday, she told CNBC, “This is who he is. This is what he does.”

What, exactly, does Haley mean by that? What sort of person does she think Trump is? In the days since New Hampshire, she has called him “vengeful,” “toxic,” “totally unhinged,” and “literally unhinged.” That sounds like an irretrievably damning judgment. You can’t endorse an unhinged man for president, can you? You wouldn’t run on his ticket, would you?

But if you’re Haley, you can, and you might. Let’s look at the fine print.

HALEY IS TRYING what Nick Catoggio calls the “Half Liz,” a partial adoption of Liz Cheney’s honesty about Trump. Yesterday in The Bulwark, JVL argued that Haley can’t be trusted to follow through on this. I agree, but I’d add one thing: Haley’s maneuver is consistent with what she has done all along. She criticizes Trump, by design, in ways that can be interpreted charitably to the former president. She never commits to a version that would squarely disqualify him. What she’s doing isn’t just the Half Liz. It’s the Full Nikki.

Haley’s current complaint about Trump’s vicious behavior—the tantrums, the “rants,” the threats of retribution, and the corrupt acts for which he has been judged liable or is being prosecuted—isn’t that these things make him unfit to be president. It’s that they’re tiresome and distracting.

At her Sunday rally in South Carolina, she shrugged off the venom of Trump’s victory speech in New Hampshire. “He threw out insults,” she told the crowd. “That’s what he does. I’m okay with that.”

The real problem with Trump’s speech, she argued, was that “he talked about himself, and at no point did he talk about the American people.” She went on to clarify that the pugnacity Trump showed in his victory speech—what she called his “core”—should turn off voters off simply because “the chaos and the drama of it all is so exhausting.”

In interviews since that rally, Haley has insisted that she doesn’t fundamentally reject Trump. “I have no personal issues with Donald Trump. I voted for him twice,” she told Fox News on Monday. She told Newsmax: “I have no problems with Donald Trump.” And on Wednesday’s Breakfast Club podcast, she explained her message to Republican primary voters: “You don’t have to leave him” to move on from him.

IF HALEY WERE SERIOUS about renouncing Trump, she would do what Christie has done: acknowledge the soundness and gravity of the legal cases against him. But she hasn’t. She feigns ignorance and dodges questions.

“I have not kept up with any of his court cases,” Haley told a rally audience on Saturday. “I don’t know exactly what he’s been charged, what he’s been found innocent, what he’s been found guilty.” She said of the E. Jean Carroll defamation case—in which a jury has decided that Trump committed sexual abuse and a judge has certified that Trump’s conduct amounted to rape—“Maybe it’s fair; maybe it’s not. I don’t know.” At her rally on Sunday, Haley professed, “I’m not paying attention to what he’s been charged with, whether he’s found guilty or innocent.”

On Meet the Press, Haley again pleaded: “I don’t know what all the court cases are. I haven’t paid attention to what he’s won, what he’s lost.” All she would say was that “every time he’s talking about defending himself in court, he’s not talking about getting our economy back on track.”

When NBC’s Kristen Welker asked about the Carroll case, Haley said she trusted the jury. But she refused to say whether the jury’s judgment should disqualify Trump from the presidency. That question should be left to “the American people,” said Haley. “We don’t need to take over anything that the American people have the right to do.”

In fact, Haley has signaled that she agrees with Trump about some of the cases against him. “There have been politics played with prosecutors that have brought on some of these cases,” she said on Fox. “There’s been politics played even with the judges.”

Welker asked Haley about Trump’s recent attacks on her ancestry: “He has mocked your birth name. He has suggested you’re not eligible to be president because your parents weren’t born here.” Again, Haley refused to say that Trump had crossed a red line. She said she had laughed off Trump’s attacks. When Welker asked whether the attacks were racist, Haley shrugged: “That’s for everybody else to decide.”

WHY IS HALEY PLAYING THIS GAME? Why won’t she firmly renounce Trump?

The simplest answer is that she’s keeping two doors open. One is endorsing him in the general election. The other is running on his ticket.

On Sunday, Welker asked Haley: “Have you completely ruled out being Donald Trump’s running mate?” Haley replied with her standard line: “I don’t want to be anyone’s vice president.” Welker pressed her: “So you’ve ruled it out?” Haley answered: “I think that’s what I’m saying. If I say, ‘I don’t want to be anyone’s vice president,’ I think that’s pretty clear.”

No, it isn’t clear. And that’s why Haley sticks to that formulation. She doesn’t want to say, “I won’t.” So instead, she says, “I don’t want to.”

Then Welker asked Haley whether, in light of her remarks about Trump being “unhinged,” she would “rule out endorsing” him in the general election, as she promised she would at the first Republican primary debate. Again, Haley ducked. “I’m not even thinking about endorsements,” she said.

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In reality, Haley is already paving the way to endorse Trump. On Monday, she told Fox News that her complaints about Trump—that his troubles are debilitating and exhausting—also apply to President Joe Biden. “Both Trump and Biden, they’re distracted by their investigations, they’re distracted . . . by their egos,” she said. “Both of them have shown they don’t have the focus.”

On Tuesday, Hugh Hewitt asked Haley whether, if she were to win the nomination, she would invite Trump to keynote the Republican convention. “Of course,” said Haley. “This isn’t about shunning him,” she assured Hewitt. “I have no personal issues with Donald Trump.”

In real life, it will almost certainly be the other way around: Trump will be the nominee, and Haley’s role will be the one in question. Her answer to Hewitt is a preview of what she’ll do. Her endorsement of Trump writes itself: “Yes, now and then, I’ve had my differences with his tone. But Biden is no better, and Trump has the right policies. Let’s unite and take back our country.

THE TRUTH IS THAT THERE IS NO NEW Nikki Haley. For months, she acknowledged the chaos around Trump but refused to say whether it was his fault. Now she admits that he’s volcanic and vengeful, but she refuses to say whether that’s a fatal moral defect or just a manageable political problem. She knows that there are voters on both sides of these questions, and she’s looking for a way to signal that no matter which side you’re on, she’s with you. That’s the core of Nikki Haley. That’s who she is.

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