Nikki Haley uses ‘Saturday Night Live’ to skewer Donald Trump


WASHINGTON – Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spent the weekend taking her souped-up campaign of attack against former Donald Trump to its biggest stage yet: A guest shot on “Saturday Night Live.”

Appearing in the opening sketch as a South Carolina voter attending a Trump town hall, Haley delivered punchlines about her rival’s age, refusal to debate, and sometimes confused and “unhinged” statements that have inspired calls for a “mental competency test.”

“You spent $50 million in your own legal fees,” Haley joked at one point to the “SNL” actor who typically impersonates Trump. “Do you need to borrow some money?”

The New York studio crowd whooped it up over their surprise guest.

‘Tricky Nikki’

While Haley’s attacks could backfire by alienating Trump supporters who make up a large segment of the Republican primary, she served notice that she will be aggressive heading into the South Carolina GOP primary on Feb. 24.

After the Saturday Night Live gig, Haley said on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that she had “a blast” on the program.

“Know it was past Donald’s bedtime so looking forward to the stream of unhinged tweets in the a.m.,” Haley said.

Trump didn’t wait until the end of the program to launch his another counter-attack.

As Saturday’s installment was airing, Trump used his Truth Social account to post a commercial about Haley’s alleged flip-flops on various issues, from taxes to running for president.

He added a tagline: “Tricky Nikki.”

amped up her campaign against former President Donald Trump this weekend, appearing on a show that has often mocked the Republican frontrunner: “Saturday Night Live.”

Haley’s appearance in the show’s opening sketch gave her an opportunity to attack Trump’s age and refusal to participate in Republican primary debates. She also doubled down on casting him as a chaotic, “unhinged” figure before American voters.

The SNL effect

Politicians have often used “Saturday Night Live” to knock their competition – and try to make it clear they can take a joke. Trump himself hosted the show in 2015.

But the former United Nations ambassador’s jabs came as she has spent much of her campaign dancing around criticizing the former president.

They also arrived as a group of former Republican presidential candidates, such as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, endorsed Trump’s reelection bid ahead of the pivotal South Carolina primary and other 2024 hurdles.

‘Are you doing OK, Donald?’

Haley has stepped up her criticism of Trump after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire and heading into the Feb. 24 primary in her home state of South Carolina.

Trump enjoys huge leads in Palmetto State polls, though Haley’s recent hits have gotten under his skin. He has attacked her Indian heritage, mangled her name and confused her in a fiery speech with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Haley in turn sought to hit Trump’s weak spots during her surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” The show’s opening skit was a parody of a CNN town hall featuring the Trump character played by “SNL” regular James Austin Johnson.

The program cast Haley as a “concerned” town hall attendee and offered her a chance to make her case against Trump.

Her opening lines: “Why won’t you debate Nikki Haley?” 

When the fictional Trump responded by again mixing up Haley and Pelosi, the former South Carolina governor said: “Are you doing OK, Donald? … You might need a mental competency test.”

The Trump character then made fun of Haley’s name. At one point, he referred to her as “Nikki Haley Joel Osmet,” a reference to the actor who stared in the 1999 horror film “The Sixth Sense” and uttered the famous line, “I see dead people.”

“Yeah,” Haley replied, “that’s what voters will say if they see you and Joe (Biden) on the ballot.”

‘I probably should have said that the first time’

Despite the back and forth between a fictional Trump and Haley, she wasn’t spared from criticism during the show.

At the end of the sketch, actress and host Ayo Edebiri, posing as a voter, asked Haley: “What would you say was the main cause of the Civil War? And do you think it starts with an S and ends with a lavery?”

Haley responded: “Yep, I probably should have said that the first time.”

The moment came after Haley in December drew intense criticism when she was asked during a town hall event about the cause of America’s Civil War. She didn’t cite slavery, and her fellow Republican candidates and President Joe Biden immediately called her out for the failure on the campaign trail.

Taking the gloves off?

At the start of the 2024 campaign, Haley, as well as DeSantis, seemed reluctant to go after Trump, wary of alienating his base of supporters.

That dynamic has changed for Haley after her third-place finish in the Iowa Caucuses and her second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.

Now, Haley is trying to attract Republican and independent voters wary of Trump. But by sharpening her attacks on the former president, Haley is likely to further anger Trump’s supporters, who are the base of the Republican party and could be for years to come.

Haley’s future aspirations are very much under threat from Team Trump.

After Haley expressed confidence in the jury that awarded columnist E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million in defamation damages from the former president, campaign aide Jason Miller said on X that “Haley just torpedoed her political future. There is no point of return. Haley is politically finished for ‘24, ‘28, forever.”

But Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said Haley’s “SNL” performance shouldn’t hurt her ahead of South Carolina’s primary, where the former governor is hoping to show that her campaign is picked up momentum.

“Generally, it’s good when politicians can show some humor,” Knotts said. However, he noted that her overall approach to Trump is challenging. Trump’s MAGA movement is liable to remain a factor if Haley runs for president again in the future.

“It’s a really tough situation she’s in,” Knotts said. “It’s a dilemma for so many Republicans today.”

Haley’s aggression is no surprise, allies and analysts told USA TODAY. You have to be a fighter to rise from a little-known state legislator to governor – all as a woman of color – as Haley did in 2010.

Knotts noted that the current fight for the Republican nomination is “a two-person race and it’s common in American politics to criticize the main opponent. I think she will stay aggressive as long as both are in the race.”

Katon Dawson, a Haley supporter and former state Republican chairman in South Carolina, said Haley’s political rise was “rather an amazing sight to see.” Dawson noted that Trump began attacking her in earnest the night of the New Hampshire primary, even insulting the dress she wore to a watch party.

“Look, she’s just fighting back,” Dawson said. “Trump is the one who started it.”

Trump and Haley continue to spar

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