U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — one of only a few women and persons of color in President Donald Trump's Cabinet — has quickly gone from a little-known Republican governor to a tough, well-known political figure on the international scene.
The daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants and the first woman or minority to be elected governor of South Carolina, Haley has developed a reputation as a strong and independent voice in the Trump administration. She has helped shape foreign policy and trim the U.N. budget. And some observers say she's got her eyes set on a presidential run.
Until recently, Haley was one of only a handful of the president’s Cabinet members who had not been caught in his cross hairs. But her announcement recently on a cable television news show that the administration was about to impose new sanctions on Russia backfired when the White House said the following day that Trump had not decided to impose new sanctions. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that she might have had some “momentary confusion.”
Instead of remaining silent, Haley fired back.
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” she said.
While the episode might have been the beginning of “Will she get fired?” rumors that have plagued other officials, Haley appears to have come through it stronger.
An April 25 poll by Quinnipiac University found her to be the most popular Cabinet member. She received high approval ratings from both women (59 percent) and men (67 percent).
“She’s a very smart politician,” said Claire Wofford, assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston in Haley’s home state of South Carolina.
Wofford said Haley learned some important lessons coming up in state politics that are serving her well as she navigates Washington.
“I think what South Carolina did was toughen her,” Wofford said. “It’s not an easy place to be a politician. There’s a lot of dirty politics that goes on here. There is a strong good-old-boys network. She managed that in a way a lot of people didn’t think she could do.”
An accountant and a convert to Christianity, Haley was elected to the state legislature in 2006. She served three terms and then ran for governor in 2010. She was part of the Tea Party movement that was sweeping Republican politics, and her campaign received a boost with an endorsement from former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Wofford said Haley faced racism and sexism in her home state.
“She definitely faced a backlash she wouldn’t have faced if she wasn’t a woman or a woman of color,” Wofford said, including being called a “raghead” by a state senator.
Wofford added that Haley strategically turned the criticism to her own advantage, offering the Republican Party the diversity it lacked and the credibility it needed to show it was not a racist party.
Haley has also exceeded most expectations as U.N. ambassador. When she first arrived in January 2017, there was a combination of relief and skepticism. Relief that Trump had not chosen an established U.N. critic. Skepticism because Haley did not have a foreign policy background.
“She was no U.N. expert when she started, but she impressed other diplomats with her handling of North Korean sanctions,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. analyst and associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “She is also getting a grip on U.N. policy issues like peacekeeping in Africa, which she originally did not seem too interested in.”
Haley has also repeatedly called out Russia — often more loudly than the White House — for its support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its interventions in Ukraine, and most recently, for the alleged poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
On policy, Haley has been a staunch defender of Israel.
“At the U.N. and throughout the U.N. agencies, Israel does get bullied,” Haley told the Israeli lobby group AIPAC at its annual conference in March. “It gets bullied because the countries that don’t like Israel are used to being able to get away with it,” she said, adding, “that just doesn’t sit well with me.”
Haley is also a vocal supporter of Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there — a decision that isolated the United States at the U.N. Only eight countries voted with the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly.
Jerusalem aside, diplomats have generally positive reviews for Haley, saying she has kept Trump engaged with the U.N. which he previously disparaged.
“Foreign diplomats basically see her as someone they can work with, even if they have regular fallings-out on specific issues,” Gowan said.
While the U.S. has significantly cut funding to U.N. programs for women’s reproductive health and Palestinian refugees, and trimmed its contribution to the peacekeeping budget, there has not been the major de-funding of the organization as a whole that many had feared.
Haley also has a good working relationship with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
“Guterres has been a crucial ally for Haley,” Gowan said. “He has done everything he can to help her by charting U.N. reforms that she can cite as proof the U.S. is making the institution deliver.”
As speculation mounts that Haley has her sights on higher office, some observers say she is in a strong position to continue her rise. But they caution that in politics, there are no guarantees.
“I can’t think of anybody else that has a better opportunity at this point,” said Bob Oldendick, political science professor at South Carolina University. But he questions whether there will be an appetite for a Haley presidential or vice presidential bid, post-Trump.
“My sense is that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction after four years or eight years of this type of presidency,” he said.
Wofford noted that if Trump serves two terms, Haley will still be in her prime at 52 years old in 2024.
“You can never know what the circumstances will be at the time,” Wofford cautioned. “If the current situation doesn’t turn completely upside down, she certainly has a lot of positives in her column, and she is, I think, positioning herself well to take advantage of that.”
“She has a plan in mind, and she seems to be executing it,” Oldendick said.