WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump joked Monday that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley could "easily be replaced," few knew there might be something bigger at play.
If there are anxieties within the Trump administration that Haley has been overstepping her bounds, they were revealed most acutely Thursday night when reports leaked that the State Department would seek to pre-clear her remarks on hot-button issues before she delivers them publicly.
That memo was distributed on the eve of Haley's and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first joint appearance before the U.N. Security Council, to discuss the threat of North Korea.
The story also appeared online around the same time CNN was airing a pre-taped interview in which Haley declared “all scenarios are on the table” in dealing with North Korea as the volatile nation continues to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities.
By Friday, it was Tillerson at the head of the table at the United Nations, arguing for decisive action against North Korea if diplomacy fails.
Haley sat quietly behind him.
Has South Carolina's former governor, who's still only months into her post, become too good at her job? Is she saying things that aren’t in line with the administration’s platform? Or both?
‘A common world view’
Some say the Haley leash-pulling by the Trump State Department is a product of an administration that still hasn't found firm footing with world relations after 100 days in office.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, wondered whether Trump is using Haley to deploy a strategy of appearing to have no strategy.
“It’s part and parcel of this broader framework the president has articulated, which is one predicated on unpredictability,” Lissner said.
“He doesn’t want to telegraph what the United States is going to do before we do it," she said. "So I interpret the lack of coordinated messaging to be part of an intentional approach to foreign policy where everyone else is sort of left guessing what the United States really intends to do."
Trump's apparent comfort with multiple, competing narratives across his administration, Lissner said, has helped "create a space" for Haley to thrive when it comes to speaking out on world events and foreign leaders.
Meanwhile, Haley’s political rise has been in large part thanks to her keen ability to read public sentiment and respond accordingly. Having space to draw from this skill set has helped her succeed in the early days at her new job, in a field where she has little prior experience.
“She understands the public’s opinion on certain issues,” said Kendra Stewart, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. “I think she’s actually garnering a fair amount of attention because she is providing a lot of people with some hope the administration is going to stay aligned with what have traditionally been American values toward foreign policy.”
Those values include aggressively standing up for human rights abroad and articulating a vision where the United States feels compelled to act in some overseas conflicts. It's a vision that doesn’t quite mesh with Trump’s “America First” and non-interventionist campaign rhetoric.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Capitol Hill's most unapologetic defense hawks and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with control over the U.N. budget, said he thought Trump now shares this vision, leading him to recently launch missile strikes in Syria.
Graham confirmed Haley has been reaching out to him and others to learn the ropes of her new job, but he also said he's enjoying a level of access to Haley and her team that he did not have with previous U.N. ambassadors.
To that end, Graham, too, could be influencing Haley’s rhetoric.
“Some of the things I’ve been pushing for years she’s willing to do, and she has her own reform agenda,” he told The Post and Courier. “It’s going to be good to have a partner at the U.N. who actually sees the body as antiquated in the way it works and sort of put the U.N. on notice … we share a common world view here.”
Other than Graham, Haley is believed to be closely listening to her chief of staff, Steven Grove.
Formerly of the Heritage Foundation, Grove has written extensively in support of cutting costs at the U.N., withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and questioning the integrity of the Human Rights Council. Haley has aligned herself with all three positions so far.
Another of Haley’s senior policy advisers is Morgan Vina, most recently a senior policy analyst with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which handled Haley’s confirmation proceedings.
Her speechwriter is Jessica Gavora, a veteran GOP communicator who has worked for former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gavora's husband is Jonah Goldberg, a well-known conservative commentator.
And for political advice, there's her longtime pollster and strategist Jon Lerner, who she has put in charge of her Washington, D.C., office.
Less clear is whether she’s listening to Tillerson or even Trump.
Graham disputed the characterization that Haley is steamrolling her superiors or going rogue, calling it “a bunch of political gossip.”
“I can tell you this," Graham said. "Nikki is doing a good job in her lane, she’s doing a good job in representing President Trump’s interests, but Secretary Tillerson has the ear of the president, the trust of the president."
Describing Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, as “very low key” and someone who “doesn’t speak any more than he has to,” Graham suggested Haley’s high profile might be purposeful.
“I think every time Nikki speaks aggressively, it helps the cause,” said Graham. “I think they’re sort of using her as an out front person. … I think it’s by design.”
At the moment, however, not everyone in the international affairs community has Graham’s view of the Trump administration's dynamics.
In one telling anecdote, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Florida Republican and former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Post and Courier she and her colleagues recently opted to send a letter to Haley on a foreign policy-related matter rather than to Tillerson, who “appears to be a little more hands-offish. I don’t know.”
David Bosco, an expert on the United Nations who teaches at Indiana University-Bloomington’s School of Global and International Studies, said there’s a long history of secretaries of state being resentful of U.N. ambassadors basking in the limelight.
Tillerson and Haley could be playing out this scenario, too, he said.
“Tillerson seems to have very little desire to have much of a public profile, so he might actually be fine with Haley having gotten most of the attention,” Bosco said.
It would, however, be “an unusual dynamic,” he said.