Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Have you ever heard someone whisper that a successful woman slept her way to the top? Of course you have. It’s a classic. The latest target of this takedown tactic is the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, the most prominent woman in Donald Trump’s cabinet.
The controversial author Michael Wolff has been spreading a rumor that the President of the United States is having an affair, and in a coyly worded exchange on Bill Maher’s HBO program implied that it was with Haley. He is “absolutely sure” Trump is having an affair, he said, but not sure enough to write it in his smash book “Fire and Fury”– although he directed people to read the book for clues.
Haley shot back, telling the Politico podcast “Women Rule,” the rumor is “Absolutely not true. It is highly offensive, and it is disgusting.” You can now add Haley to the countless number of women who have seen their talents, skills, and their value to an organization undercut by suggestions that the only reason they have succeeded is because they’ve used their sexuality to advance their careers.
If you doubt it, consider the implication of the claim: it is not a charge against Trump to claim he’s sleeping with Haley. Even though on the surface they are both accused of the same behavior, this is seen as an attack her, not him.
The rumor, which someone presumably whispered to Wolff during his months of fishing for gossip inside the White House, is typical of environments where successful women are rarities, such as Trump’s cabinet, which is overwhelmingly (white) male. In an administration rife with rumor and undercutting, this is an attempt to plunge a knife into a powerful woman’s back.
That’s one reason why we hear this type of innuendo more commonly in Republican administrations. In Democratic ones, women in top jobs are far more common. Their presence does not appear as an oddity demanding explanation.
Wolff says he kept the charges out of the book, but left a trail of breadcrumbs, writing that Trump has been spending a “notable” amount of “private time” with Haley on Air Force One. Haley denied it all categorically, saying “I have literally been on Air Force One once and there were several people in the room when I was there,” and noting that, “I am never alone with him.”
Haley says she’s sure people will see the lies for what they are, but the truth is not so sunny. These kinds of rumors are pernicious, sticky. They follow women like clouds. As a UN ambassador, she has good reason to speak with the President, and there should be no reason why she shouldn’t meet with him alone. Now they may both hesitate, afraid of stirring up talk. And when women become a problem for a boss, there is always the possibility they will tire of the trouble and fire them.
The question here goes beyond Wolff’s spreading of rumors for which he has provided no proof. The more substantive one is why someone in the White House is trying to discredit the UN ambassador.
Haley told Politico that this is something she has seen before. “I saw this as a legislator; I saw this when I was governor. I see it now. I see them do it to other women.” It happens, she said, because women who work know how to prioritize, focus and get the job done. Some men, she explained, “see that as either too ambitious or stepping out of line.” It’s the old uppity woman story.
In her case, it is quite likely that key White House players are growing concerned about Haley’s prominence and outspokenness.
The former South Carolina governor, whose life is one of those inspiring stories of immigrant families embracing the American dream, has become one of the few success stories in an administration better known for crises.
At the UN, it has fallen to her to clean up after Trump, translating his threatening statements and his frequent contradictions into more palatable policy, and trying to muster support for Washington in the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Haley has apparently cracked the impossible riddle of how to criticize Trump while at the same time praising him. The skill is on display in the podcast.
Recall that when Trump equivocated in criticizing neo-Nazis demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, she said she had a “personal conversation” with the President, and she wrote of the protesters “horrible acts” to her staff, “We must denounce [white supremacists] at every turn…”
Haley also raised eyebrows when she told CBS that the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct deserve to be heard. She claims Trump did not complain, but you can be sure the words were not well-received in the White House.
While she says in the podcast that her views align closely to Trump on most issues, the most isolationist, America First members of Trump’s inner circle likely cringe at some of her public pronouncements. After the infamous “shithole” debacle, she said she met with ambassadors from African nations to ease tensions.
“We respect every country, we need every country, and every country needs us,” she said. To some in the White House, her comment that, “We’re always going to do humanitarian things, we’re always going to take care of countries that struggle,” may be anathema to Trump’s America First.
Whoever is lobbing stones Haley’s way may be troubled by the high praise she has received, even from some of her early critics and skeptics.
As the Oval Office overflows with ego, she has seemed strikingly self-effacing. She said she took herself out of the running for secretary of state during the transition because she thought Trump could find someone more qualified. And when rumors floated that she would replace Rex Tillerson in that position, she quickly shot them down, saying Tillerson is staying put and that she doesn’t want the job.
Despite this, talk that this daughter of Indian immigrants will become the first woman president of the United States has filled the airwaves. To her foes in the administration, that is only reason to keep the poison flowing.
Women have long seen the brandishing of malicious gossip to derail their careers. After all, it’s a tried and true strategy. And just like the innumerable women who have faced these tactics, and endured their corrosive consequences, Haley says the attacks will not deter her.
“Do I like it? No!” She said, “Is it right? No. Is it going to slow me down? No.” She has experience with this. “Any time this has happened, it only makes me work harder.”