Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, unexpectedly announced Tuesday that she will be resigning at the end of this year. In a joint appearance at the White House with the president, Trump said that Haley “told me probably six months ago, she said, ‘You know, maybe at the end of the year, at the end of the two-year period, but at the end of the year, I want to take time off. I want to take a break.’ ” He praised her for having done a “fantastic job” and for making the ambassadorship a “more glamorous position.”
Tuesday’s move came as a surprise, as has just about everything about Haley’s tenure at Turtle Bay, including her nomination for the job. Not only did the South Carolina governor have little foreign policy experience before she took the position, she also had been a prominent critic of Trump during the GOP primary, calling him “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” But in Trump’s first year, Haley quickly emerged as one of the staunchest advocates of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, supporting moves that were opposed by other members of Trump’s foreign policy team, including the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
With former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson often reluctant to speak to the press and visibly at odds with the president, Haley often served as the de facto face of Trump’s foreign policy, particularly its aggressive line on Iran, North Korea, and—in one notable contrast with her boss—Russia. Under Haley’s tenure at the U.N., the U.S. negotiated a major cut to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, withdrew from several bodies including UNESCO and the Human Rights Council over alleged anti-Israel bias, and cut funding to the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees. In her announcement Tuesday, Haley pointed to last year’s sanctions on North Korea and the recently passed arms embargo on South Sudan as among her proudest accomplishments.
As the Washington Post noted last week, Haley’s profile has diminished somewhat lately. In part this was her own doing. The backlash to the Trump foreign policy initiatives she championed, particularly on Iran and Jerusalem, have diminished her clout at the U.N. She’s also less of an outlier in Trump’s Cabinet these days. Mike Pompeo is much closer to Trump’s views and much more comfortable with the limelight than Tillerson was. And new National Security Adviser John Bolton, a former ambassador to the U.N. himself, has taken a much more active interest in the U.N. than H.R. McMaster did. There have also been a few notable moments of tension between Haley and the team back in Washington, particularly last April when economic adviser Larry Kudlow said she had been confused over the administration’s mixed messages on Russia sanctions, prompting a miffed response from Haley.
By the Trump administration’s standard of resignations and firings-by-tweet, Tuesday’s announcement was pretty cordial. But it’s still a little mysterious for one of the more popular and effective officials of this administration to leave like this. Explaining her decision, Haley said, “I’m a believer in term limits. I think you have to be selfless enough to know when you step aside and allow someone else to do the job.” (Haley wasn’t facing any sort of “term limit,” formal or informal. Her two predecessors—Susan Rice and Samantha Power—both stayed for four years.)
Haley is a rising star in the GOP and is widely tipped as a potential future presidential candidate. She was quick to tamp down speculation saying, unprompted, “No, I’m not running for 2020. I can promise you what I’ll be doing is campaigning for this one,” pointing to Trump.
Whatever her future plans, Haley represents a textbook case of how Republican leaders quickly shifted from open hostility to Trump to embracing and implementing his agenda.