Departures from President Donald Trump’s Cabinet are rarely dignified affairs. Jettisoned officials have learned of their fates by tweet or ill-timed phone call or following a humiliating leak.
So it was a novelty Tuesday when Trump and outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared together in the Oval Office, cheerfully announcing an end-of-year exit that caught most of the West Wing and State Department unaware and led to grumbles about inopportune political timing.
“I thought this would be an appropriate way of doing it. When you write it out on a piece of paper that ‘Ambassador Haley will be leaving’ and you say nice things, people say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” the President said. “When you really think somebody has done a terrific job, I felt this was an appropriate way of doing it.”
Appropriate or not, Haley’s decision to announce her resignation four weeks ahead of midterm congressional elections and immediately after a bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle that laid bare deep political faults on sex and gender led to questions about her timing.
And it exposed what has sometimes been a fraught relationship between Haley and other administration officials, who viewed her both as an effective face of administration policy and an ambitious political operator willing to break ranks.
That dynamic became apparent after Trump revamped the top of his national security team earlier this year, swapping more moderate advisers for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Those changes occurred last March – roughly the same time Haley first told the President of her intentions to resign.
’Time to step aside’
In the Oval Office, Haley insisted she made her decision not for personal reasons, but because she felt she’d served long enough.
“I think that it’s just very important for government officials to understand when it’s time to step aside. And I have given everything I’ve got these last eight years,” she said, referring to time spent both as the UN envoy and as South Carolina governor. “And I do think that sometimes it’s good to – to rotate in other people who can put that same energy and power into it.”
Still, neither Trump nor his top aides were looking to announce the departure of one of the administration’s highest-profile women just as Republicans work to repair whatever damage was inflicted by an ugly confirmation fight for Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice who was accused by women of sexual assault.
Haley’s resignation letter was dated October 3 and officials said she informed the President of her intentions during a meeting in the Oval Office that day. The previous evening, Trump publicly mocked one of Kavanaugh’s accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, during a Mississippi campaign rally, drawing condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Making Haley’s departure public then would have caused further complications for the Kavanaugh confirmation, officials said.
The lack of forewarning led to griping among some aides that Haley was again stepping out on her own on a day the President was still basking in the glow of the ultimately successful Kavanaugh nomination.
“A lot of people would celebrate,” Trump told reporters later as he was departing for a campaign rally in Iowa. “We go back to business the next day.”
’I don’t get confused’
As UN ambassador, Haley has carved out her own space in the public sphere as a prominent voice on issues ranging from alleged Syrian war crimes to Russia’s aggressive behavior around the globe, even when her rhetoric got ahead of the President’s views.
In recent months, however, Haley had lost clout with the President, two people familiar with their relationship noted in wake of her resignation. When Rex Tillerson was still secretary of state, Trump sought out Haley’s advice often and was regularly seen in the Oval Office, the people said.
But when the President orchestrated a revamp of his national security team – replacing Tillerson with Pompeo and bringing in Bolton, who served in the same UN post as Haley under President George W. Bush – Haley saw her time with the President diminish.
When she stepped out in April to announce the US would sanction Russian companies linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program, the White House refuted her the next day, announcing Trump had decided not to move forward with the sanctions. Some White House officials, including the President’s top economic adviser, were quick to discount her in public, claiming she was mistaken.
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley struck back, in a stunning statement.