It’s understandable, perhaps, that much of the press is playing the latest back-and-forth on Russian sanctions as a personal slap at Nikki Haley.
Especially given the fact that she slapped back.
But there are larger questions about the way the Trump administration makes foreign policy—and who speaks for the president.
The White House is certainly capable of bold diplomatic moves—such as the just-disclosed secret meetings between Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and likely secretary of state, and Kim Jong-Un. It’s rather startling that this didn’t leak—at least until the Washington Post found out about it Tuesday night—and makes the prospect of a Trump-Kim sitdown far more likely.
Yet it’s also a reminder that Trump apparently didn’t consult his previous secretary of state when announcing his own plan to sit down with Kim. And when Rex Tillerson earlier raised the possibility of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, Trump tweeted that he shouldn’t waste his energy on Little Rocket Man.
The Haley episode began as a bit of Sunday-show diplomacy. The U.N. ambassador said on “Face the Nation” that the administration was ready to act against Moscow in the wake of the U.S. airstrikes against Syria over Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” Haley said. “Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already. And they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons used.”
But that didn’t happen. The president was watching and “grew angry,” according to The New York Times. And that led to what the paper yesterday called “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.”
When Trump’s new economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was asked about this, he said Haley “got ahead of the curve. She’s done a great job. She’s a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that.”
And that did not sit well with the former South Carolina governor.
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley said in a statement to Fox’s Dana Perino.
The Washington Post called this “an extraordinary rebuke of the White House.” (Really? Seemed pointed but restrained to me.)
Kudlow, who was obviously trying to smooth things over, told the Times he was “totally wrong” to call her confused: “The policy was changed and she wasn’t told about it, so she was in a box.” He also called Haley to apologize.
In other words, Haley was following the talking points and no one told her there had been a change on the sanctions, or at least that the decision wasn’t final. That was a communications breakdown in the White House. It wasn’t Kudlow’s fault, and it wasn’t Haley’s fault—in fact, she stood up for herself against the boys’ club.
“The episode,” says Politico, “marks the latest instance of members of Trump’s team appearing out of sync with one another or with the president on foreign affairs.”
Is there a “deeper strain” between Trump and Haley, as the Times suggests, because she is the administration’s most hawkish voice on Russia and he keeps trying to cultivate good relations with Vladimir Putin? It’s hard for outsiders to know. Trump did, after all, expel 60 Russian diplomats after that poisoning in Britain. And Haley has emerged as one of the administration’s stars—though anyone working for Trump has to be careful not to shine too brightly.
Axios put it this way: “These conflicts with top aides — one of them unfolding in the open — show that, in the end, the president will govern how he wants.”
On that point, there is complete consensus.
Footnote: In a similar vein, the Times reported that Jim Mattis urged Trump to get congressional approval before launching the airstrikes against Syria but that the president overruled his Defense secretary. But the Pentagon’s top spokeswoman tells the Washington Examiner that account is “blatantly false.”