The public split between the White House and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley this week over Russia sanctions threw a spotlight on her at-times uneasy relationship with President Donald Trump, even as her deft rebuttal bolstered talk about her own future political fortunes.
Haley's rejoinder to a putdown from a close Trump adviser about message confusion — she declared that "I don't get confused" — was seized as a rallying cry among some women and echoed the audacity the former governor displayed while upending the old boys' club in the South Carolina Statehouse. But the episode also called into question her standing on Trump's national security team ahead of tough decisions on North Korea, Iran and other fronts.
"What distinguishes her from the star-struck sycophants in the White House is that she understands the intersection of strong leadership and public service, where great things happen," said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley when she was governor.
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Haley, now considered to be on the shortlist of future presidential candidates, has consistently taken a harder line than Trump on Russia. While that, at times, has drawn Trump's ire, her hawkishness on other occasions has been appreciated by the president, who has allowed her to reprimand Moscow while he works toward a friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That dynamic broke down this week. Trump was angry Sunday when he saw Haley on television discussing new Russia sanctions that she said would be announced the next day. He blasted her for being out of step with the rest of the administration, according to two White House officials. They were not authorized to discuss private conversations and commented only on condition of anonymity.
Despite Haley's words, no new sanctions were imposed.
Asked for an explanation, Larry Kudlow, the president's new economic adviser, told reporters that Haley "got ahead of the curve" and he added, "She's a very effective ambassador, but there might have been some momentary confusion about that."
The next day, Haley hit back, releasing a statement to Fox News that read: "With all due respect, I don't get confused."
Kudlow apologized but Haley's differences with the White House had already pushed into the open.
At the United Nations, responding to a shouted question about her relationship with the president, she simply said, "It's perfect." But the White House was left scrambling to explain.
Haley's allies insist she always consults with the West Wing, and sometimes the president personally, before speaking publicly. White House officials said the plan about the sanctions changed after she was briefed and she wasn't told before she went on television. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin further muddled the narrative Thursday when he told Fox Business Network that the administration "refined the strategy after Nikki made that announcement."
He said, "She wasn't left twisting in the wind, this was a fluid situation, the decision changed."
Haley's pushback struck a chord, becoming something of an instant feminist motto in the way it rebelled against what some saw as a patronizing comment from a powerful man. The words carried additional resonance considering Haley's place as one of the few prominent women in Trump's inner circle. Her comment was compared in some quarters to the way Sen. Elizabeth Warren had appropriated "Nevertheless, she persisted" as a rallying cry after the remark was delivered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after he tried to silence Warren on the Senate floor last year.
"I feel sorry for Nikki Haley," said former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. "She has been very tough up there making points. She makes very clear that she's representing the president. And all of a sudden she's put into this ridiculous situation of looking as though she is out there by herself on something."
Trump has vented to confidants about the media attention the dustup has received, but he hasn't given any signal that he wants to dismiss his ambassador, according to White House officials and outside advisers. Her footing on Trump's revamped national security team remains unclear: She is tight with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, but lost an ally when H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as national security adviser.
All the attention has restarted some wary West Wing whispers about Haley's ultimate goals.
Her rebuttal stood in stark contrast to the conduct of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who largely remained silent when they were undermined by Trump. She did not support Trump in her state's primary election, was viewed by many as gunning for Tillerson's job last fall, and has been floated by some Republicans as a possible running mate for Pence if he makes his own White House run.
One West Wing aide joked recently that the only question was if Haley's name would appear on a ballot in 2020 or 2024.
And on Tuesday, her office mistakenly blasted an email containing a series of press clippings that mention Haley — a message meant for the ambassador herself — to a number of journalists. Among the headlines highlighted, one cited MSNBC "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough and read, "Scarborough: Nikki Haley would beat Donald Trump if she ran in 2020 GOP primary."
"She has an incredibly bright future and will be a major player for the Republican Party in the years ahead," said Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and informal Trump ally. "I think she's a future secretary of state and vice president. And remember: this president learns a lot from television. She is a remarkably effective presence for the United States of America on television and the president likes that."
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, grew up enduring racist taunts during her childhood in a small South Carolina town. She is accustomed to defying political expectations.
In her first campaign in 2004, she defeated the longest-serving member of South Carolina's House. One of only a handful of women in the Legislature, she showed the tough political skin she said was needed to make political progress.
"I don't know how to be intimidated," she declared.
She faced her biggest challenge in 2015, when a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers in a Charleston church. Haley sat front-and-center for weeks at the funerals and later backed removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, where it had flown for more than 50 years.
Says former spokesman Godfrey: "She's not afraid to stand up to people who are bullies, whether it's a thug dictator on the next continent, or it's a thug state senator in the next county."
Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Catherine Lucey, and Edith Lederer at the United Nations.