President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that he will nominate South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be his ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley, 44, a rising star in the Republican Party and a daughter of Indian immigrants, has led South Carolina since 2011. She is Trump’s first female appointee to a Cabinet-level post, and she would be taking on a position that requires intense diplomatic and navigational skills in an often-frustrating international bureaucracy.
In his statement announcing his decision, Trump called Haley “a proven deal-maker, and we look to be making plenty of deals.” He also said the governor has a “track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation.”
“Our country faces enormous challenges here at home and internationally,” Haley said in the same statement. “I am honored that the president-elect has asked me to join his team.”
Her nomination will have to be confirmed by the Senate.
In 2015, Haley drew national praise and attention for her response to a mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, when she called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the grounds of the state capitol. “By removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are in heaven,” she said, while acknowledging that some saw the flag as a symbol of tradition.
During the Republican presidential primary, Haley was sharply critical of Trump’s policies, especially his proposal for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, which she called “un-American.” Haley’s parents are members of the Sikh faith, but she’s a Christian and attends a Methodist church.
Haley endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ahead of the South Carolina primary, and campaigned with him vigorously throughout the state, which he lost by 10 percentage points to Trump. And when she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Haley urged the party to reject the “angriest voices” — a line widely seen as aimed at Trump.
Trump punched back, tweeting: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”
“Bless your heart,” she responded.
Haley met with Trump late last week, however, and afterwards described him as “a friend and supporter before he ran for president.”
She explained her criticism of Trump as truth-telling, not an irrevocable breach: “When I see something I am uncomfortable with, I say it. When we met, it was friends who had known each other before.”
Haley has never served in federal government. She also lacks obvious foreign policy experience, and little is known about her stance on contentious topics such as how to end the war in Syria. Like other Republicans, Haley opposed the Iran nuclear deal, which is widely supported by most of the international community.
In 2015, Haley was one of several governors who asked the State Department not to resettle Syrian refugees in their states, citing a “lack of historical and verifiable intelligence” on their identities. Governors lack the power to stop the resettlement, however — and South Carolina today hosts several dozen refugees from Syria.
“She’s such an unknown in foreign policy space that its kind of hard to tell what to expect,” one U.N. official said.
Haley needs just a simple majority to be confirmed in the Senate, where Republicans are set to control 52 votes next year. Influential Senate Democrats who will play a key role in Haley’s nomination largely reserved judgment on Wednesday, instead promising a detailed examination of her qualifications to be ambassador when she comes before the Senate next year.
“I look forward to leading my Democratic colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee in a thorough hearing of her qualifications, her foreign policy experience, and world view,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee that will take up her nomination. “A strong and capable U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is critical for American leadership in the world and to safeguard and extend our interests and values.”
Cardin stressed specifically that the next ambassador to the United Nations will have to “ensure that Russia will be held accountable” amid concerns that Trump is too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Haley earned some warm praise from another Democrat: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the party’s vice-presidential nominee this year who also sits on the Foreign Relations panel. “As a former governor, I believe that Governor Haley’s executive experience would serve her well in the challenging role of negotiating with all United Nations member states and representing the United States on the Security Council,” Kaine said in a statement Wednesday.
Aides to other Democratic members of the Foreign Relations Committee said the senators will likely wait until Haley’s confirmation hearings to air their views on the governor-turned-nominee.
At the United Nations, Haley will have to deal with the heavy responsibilities involved in America’s role as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council, a role that has in recent years put the United States in frequent opposition to Russia, which holds similar rank.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has repeatedly clashed with Russia over how to deal with the conflict in Syria, with the Russians moving to block punitive actions against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But Trump has indicated he wants to find common ground with Russia on Syria and other fronts, and it’s possible such clashes may subside during his presidency.
Trump also has signaled he wants to scale back America’s overall role in the United Nations, an echo of anti-U.N. sentiment expressed by many Republicans during the George W. Bush presidency. U.N. officials are bracing for disputes with the United States over America’s dues to the world body. They also worry that the incoming Trump administration will move to undermine the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and other major global agreements in which the U.N. plays a role.
Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and close follower of the United Nations, said there will be a lot of relief around the institution that they’re not getting a person from the Bush-vs.-the-U.N. era. Diplomats feared the return of acolytes of former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, and there was speculation that Richard Grenell, the U.S. spokesman at the U.N. during that period, would be returning to Turtle Bay.
“Diplomats were expecting Trump to send an angry white man to the U.N. The mere fact that Haley is not an angry white man is good in terms of political optics,” Gowan said.
Still, there is much unknown about how Haley will approach the job, given her lack of international experience. Obama’s two U.N. ambassadors, by comparison, were established experts about the organization. At the same time, Gowan expects that the political situations in places not on the president-elect’s radar, like the Central African Republic and South Sudan, to only worsen, which will mean a “hellishly steep learning curve for Haley,” he said.
Her political background means she’ll be well suited for much of the retail diplomacy that comes with this posting. But when it comes to machinations with the Security Council’s permanent members — and Russia in particular — her lack of experience may be a disadvantage.
“She’s going to be going up against Russia’s ambassador Vitaly Churkin — who has been here a decade,” Gowan said. “The Russian’s have been able to outmaneuver the U.S. on several fronts this year so I think Churkin will see this as a great Thanksgiving gift. There will be a lot of concern about that imbalance.”
Some observers said that by nominating a U.N. ambassador so early — Trump has not even selected his Defense and State Department secretaries yet — the president-elect was indicating that he believes the international institution is important.
“I expect that [Trump’s U.N.] agenda will include reform, increased accountability, budget restraint, and using our position on the Security Council to advance our interests,” said Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is a growing force in the Trump realm. “The stature of the appointment indicates that he knows how difficult these goals will be and understands that it will need the attention of a serious and skilled person to advance them.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who held the role during the George H. W. Bush era, urged Haley to hire professional staff with strong expertise in the United Nations to help her wend her way through the system. Her experience as a governor may be more useful than she realizes, he said in an interview.
“A lot of the work at the U.N. is like working with a state legislature or a national legislature. You’re always counting votes,” Pickering said of dealing with U.N. member states. “A lot of the things depend on how you muster the votes for the subject you’re dealing with.”
The Washington Post reported early Wednesday and The Post and Courier reportedearlier that Haley’s offer to serve in the post would be announced on Wednesday.
The Post and Courier reported that Haley has taken at least eight trips abroad since taking office in 2011. The paper added that her “chief foreign work centers on negotiating with international companies seeking economic development deals in the state and leading seven overseas trade missions as governor.”
For one of those trips, a 2011 trade mission to Europe, Haley drew fire for costing South Carolina taxpayers $127,000, staying at fancy hotels and attending swanky parties. She lashed out at the Post Courier reporter who wrote a critical story about the trip, calling her a “little girl” (Haley later apologized).
Haley’s departure from South Carolina would elevate Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, an early Trump supporter and former state attorney general, to the governorship. McMaster was also a U.S. attorney under President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
McMaster taking over as governor would also scramble South Carolina’s 2018 elections, when the race was expected to be open because Haley is term-limited. McMaster was already expected to run, but the Charleston Post and Courier has also reported that popular Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy have weighed whether to run as a ticket for governor and lieutenant governor.