By W.J. Hennigan
October 9, 2018

It’s not often that a top-level official in this Administration gets away clean and leaves on good terms with President Donald Trump. When she stepped down Tuesday as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley became one of the only senior staff members to walk away from the White House with her reputation largely intact.

Since Trump’s first weeks in office, the White House has been plagued with high-profile departures of people who are fired or resign, often after being stung by scandal or caught up in some controversy: National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, FBI Director James Comey and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to name a few.

But Haley, who is seen as stabilizing force within the Administration and a frequent spokesperson for the president’s foreign policy on television, left on her own terms with her political credentials preserved.

In a decision that stunned Washington and the international diplomatic community, Haley announced she would leave her position by year’s end.

The President’s send-off for Haley differed wildly from the typical announcements — often abruptly made from Trump’s personal Twitter account — that marked previous departures. He held a press conference inside the Oval Office and spoke about her in glowing terms, declaring she was “special to me,” and even raised the possibility she may rejoin the Administration later “in a different capacity.”

Trump said Haley told him about six months ago that she wanted to take a break from the job. He intends to name Haley’s successor within the next two to three weeks. It will be a tough decision, he said, because Haley had made U.N. ambassador a more “glamorous” position than it had been in previous years.

Haley said her tenure at the U.N. was an honor of a lifetime. “It was a blessing to go into the U.N. with body armor every day and defend America,” she said. “I’ll never truly step aside from fighting for our country. But I will tell you that I think it’s time.” She also lavished praise on Trump’s leadership and foreign policy stances.

“Look at what has happened in two years with the United States on foreign policy,” she said. “Now the United States is respected. Countries might not like what we do, but they respect what we do. Now if we say we’re going to do something, we follow through.”

She made clear there was no “personal reason” for her impending departure except she thinks government officials should know when it’s time to “step aside” and allow someone else in with a fresh perspective. She quieted rumors by declaring she had no intention to run for president in 2020, and instead promised to campaign for Trump.

Over the past two years, Haley became a critical voice for the White House’s hardline approach against U.S. adversaries such as Iran and North Korea. But she did not shy away from her policy disagreements with Trump or other senior officials. “I don’t agree with the president on everything,” she wrote Sept. 7 in a Washington Post op-ed. “When there is disagreement, there is a right way and a wrong way to address it. I pick up the phone and call him or meet with him in person.”

It became Haley’s defining characteristic. When a National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow suggested in April that Haley had suffered “momentary confusion” over the Trump Administration’s approach to sanctions against Russian entities who were assisting Syria’s chemical weapons program, she responded with a clear message to the contrary. “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley said in a written statement. The retort quickly earned her an apology.

Trump ventured outside of his core group of supporters when he announced his intent to nominate Haley, then-South Carolina governor, to the post of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Haley was an early and vocal critic of the President-elect during the long GOP primary, endorsing Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. She reluctantly announced her intention to vote for Trump just weeks before Election Day.

Haley, 46, remains a rising Republican star who now has traditional foreign policy bona fides to add to her experience as a two-term governor. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she was the first woman and person of minority background to be announced for Trump’s Administration. The Senate confirmed her in January 2017 with overwhelming bipartisan support, 96-4.

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