President Donald Trump was watching television Sunday when he saw Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, announce that he would impose fresh sanctions on Russia. The president grew angry, according to an official informed about the moment. As far as he was concerned, he had decided no such thing.
It was not the first time Trump has yelled at the television over something he saw Haley saying. This time, however, the divergence has spilled into public in a remarkable display of discord that stems not just from competing views of Russia but from larger questions of political ambition, jealousy, resentment and loyalty.
The rift erupted into open conflict Tuesday when a White House official blamed Haley’s statement about sanctions on “momentary confusion.” That prompted her to fire back, saying that she did not “get confused.” The public disagreement embarrassed Haley and reinforced questions about Trump’s foreign policy — and who speaks for his administration.
At the least, the episode highlighted the crossed circuits over foreign policy in an administration with no secretary of state, an increasingly marginalized White House chief of staff and a national security adviser who has only been on the job for a week and has pushed out many of the senior national security officials in the White House but has yet to bring in his own team.
Since Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month, Haley has been the administration’s leading foreign policy figure. And yet she was not kept in the loop on a major decision involving perhaps America’s most powerful adversary.
According to several officials, the White House did not inform Haley that it had changed course on sanctions, leaving her to hang out alone.
“It damages her credibility going forward and once again makes everyone, friend and foe alike, wonder that when the United States says something, approves something, calls for something, opposes something, is it for real?” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va. and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Should we wait to see what Trump does the next day?”
The clash was reminiscent of various occasions when Trump has directly undercut subordinates, as when Tillerson broached the idea of negotiations with North Korea and the president scolded him on Twitter not to waste his time. Many in Washington and at the United Nations were riveted by the sharp exchange Tuesday between the White House and its senior international diplomat.
“She got ahead of the curve,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s national economics adviser, told reporters at a briefing in Florida before Trump welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to his Mar-a-Lago estate. “She’s done a great job. She’s a very effective ambassador, but there might have been some momentary confusion about that.”
Haley took umbrage. A few hours later, she spoke with Dana Perino of Fox News, who quoted her response on air: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
Kudlow then called Haley to apologize. “She was certainly not confused,” Kudlow told The New York Times by telephone. “I was wrong to say that — totally wrong.”
He added: “As it turns out, she was basically following what she thought was policy. The policy was changed and she wasn’t told about it, so she was in a box.”
The argument that Haley had merely gotten out ahead of a decision was undercut by the fact that the White House itself had sent out word to surrogates on Saturday — the day before her remarks — letting them know that it had decided to take punitive action against Moscow.
“We also intend to impose specific additional sanctions against Russia to respond to Moscow’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, which has enabled the regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people,” said a document distributed by the Republican National Committee that was titled “White House talking points.”
And yet an administration official said there was a quick recognition on Sunday that Haley had gone too far in her remarks on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
This official said that the State Department called an aide to Haley shortly after she appeared on the show, to suggest she issue a correction. Haley’s aide replied that her office was considering a correction, but none was ever released. Instead, the White House was left to say the next day that no sanctions had been approved.
Such conflicts leave foreign governments in a bind as they try to interpret American moves.
“Coordinated messaging by our government on matters as serious as these is very important, so it is best that an episode such as this one not be repeated,” said John Negroponte, a former ambassador to the United Nations. He added that he was confident that Haley “has absolutely no interest in undercutting, contradicting or getting out in front of the White House.”
Beyond the immediate disconnect, though, is a deeper strain between Trump and Haley, according to administration officials and other insiders. Haley has been perhaps the most hawkish voice on Russia on a team headed by a president who has emphasized his fervent desire for friendship with President Vladimir Putin.
At times, that serves the president’s interests because she can say what he will not. But at other times, he has grown exasperated by her outspokenness.
At one point recently, he saw Haley on television sharply criticizing Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. “Who wrote that for her?” Trump yelled angrily at the screen, according to people briefed on the moment. “Who wrote that for her?”
A former governor of South Carolina, Haley has assumed a more prominent role than most of her predecessors, at times eclipsing the secretary of state. And along the way, Trump has grown suspicious of her ambition, convinced that she had been angling for Tillerson’s position and increasingly wondering whether she wants his own job.
Republicans close to the White House whisper about the prospect of an alliance between Haley and Vice President Mike Pence, possibly to run as a ticket in 2020.
Aides to both scoff at such suggestions, but the slightest hint of such a pairing would be likely to enrage Trump, who has made it clear that he plans to run for re-election. The talk was exacerbated in recent days when Pence named Jon Lerner, Haley’s deputy, as his new national security adviser, while allowing him to keep his job at the United Nations.
That plan collapsed within 48 hours when Trump grew angry at reports that Lerner had made anti-Trump ads for the Club of Growth, an economic conservative advocacy group, during Republican primaries in 2016. Lerner stepped down from the job in Pence’s office.
Haley draws strong feelings on both sides of the aisle. In Republican circles, she is a favorite of neoconservatives and national security hawks like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but viewed skeptically by the more isolationist wing that sees Trump as a champion. Among Democrats, she has respect from those who see her as a voice of reason and scorn from others who see her as overly combative.
“Nikki Haley is a neocon in her view,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “Basically, she’s a parrot for the McCain-Lindsey Graham worldview of ‘Let’s go bomb Iran, let’s go fight another cold war with Russia, let’s go use force around the world.'”
Connolly, on the other hand, described her as an important counterpoint to Trump. “She’s been a little island of some sanity in this otherwise dysfunctional, irrational, volatile White House when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. “She’s now getting the Tillerson treatment. And so perhaps this island will be swallowed up by rising sea levels.”