Nikki Haley at the Council for National Policy
Inside the conference rooms of power: the former US ambassador to the United Nations speaks about working with Trump
Nikki Haley’s surprising resignation on October 4 as US ambassador to the United Nations fueled rumors about the underlying reasons for its suddenness and timing. Was she positioning herself for a future Senate or presidential campaign? The speculation about the forty-six-year-old former South Carolina governor’s future was accompanied by a wave of media praise that recast her as a moderate alternative to the hypernationalist commander in chief. “Nikki Haley Will Be Missed” was how the New York Times editorial board headlined its assessment of Haley’s time at the United Nations. The editors praised her as a “pragmatic envoy” whose role was “constructive” and who “can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.” They went on to urge President Trump to appoint “a replacement in her mold.” The New Yorker, meanwhile, headlined the news as “A Hopeful Sign for Opponents of Trump.”
Less than a week before her resignation, Ambassador Haley made a pilgrimage to a decidedly immoderate, highly secretive organization of right-wing, mostly evangelical Republican operatives known as the Council for National Policy, or CNP. Her appearance before the group featured her last major speech before she announced that she would leave her official post. There was no public notice, no transcript. I was present as the only journalist inside the closed-door gathering.
Haley’s appearance before the CNP was structured like a campaign fund-raiser, opening with a prepared stump-style speech that segued into an informal question-and-answer session. She riled the crowd with boastful yarns about facing down global evildoers, and revealed that she used the widespread perception of President Trump as erratic and unpredictable to frighten her Chinese counterparts. She once attempted to intimidate the Chinese ambassador with threats of a military invasion of North Korea, she said, warning that she had no idea what her boss was capable of. In a way, Haley had deployed a version of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” holding up Trump as an unstable actor who might do anything. It seemed that she herself also genuinely had no idea what Trump would do.
Haley had been scheduled to speak to the CNP for a half hour, but as she completed her scripted address and took a seat for an off-the-cuff Q&A with Tony Perkins, the CNP’s president, she appeared in no hurry to leave. Lapping up the council’s adulation, Haley stayed over her time for an extended series of candid, and at times disturbing, recollections of Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea. She began by recounting a debate with the president on his planned remarks before the UN General Assembly in September 2017. When she learned that Trump planned to denigrate the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man,” she said she urged him to remove the line.
“I told the president, ‘This is the UN; it’s a little more formal of a setting than a campaign rally,’” Haley remembered, holding back laughter. But Trump insisted that he liked the ring of the insult, she said.
“So I said, ‘Okay, Mr. President, you’re the boss,’” Haley recalled. She said that during a meeting with the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, a few hours after Trump’s tirade, the African leader casually referred to Kim as “Rocket Man.” The exchange was clear proof in her mind of Trump’s masterful salesmanship.
While learning on the job at the UN, Haley said, she sought out Henry Kissinger as her personal foreign policy mentor, meeting with him every two months to absorb his lessons. During a tense diplomatic standoff with North Korea, she appeared to have embraced a version of Kissinger and Nixon’s notorious “madman theory.”
It was September 2, 2017, and North Korea had just embarked on its sixth nuclear test launch. Haley’s mission was to ram a resolution through the UN Security Council to sanction the isolated state. This meant that she had to secure abstentions from Russia and China, the two permanent members that maintained relations with Pyongyang. It was a tall task, but as she boasted to the rapt audience at the CNP, she had a few tricks up her sleeve.
“I said to the Russians, ‘Either you’re with North Korea, or you’re with the United States of America,’” Haley recalled. She said she went to the Chinese ambassador and raised the prospect of an American military invasion of North Korea. “My boss is kind of unpredictable, and I don’t know what he’ll do,” she said she warned her Chinese counterpart.
If Haley had disclosed her threat to invade China’s neighbor and longtime ally before a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations, she might have been met with finger wags and howls of outrage. But this was the Council for National Policy, and her imperial chest-thumping only deepened its members’ sense of admiration. “I tell the president, ‘I do this all the time,’” Haley assured the crowd. “And he totally gets it.”
Back when Trump was emerging as a presidential front-runner, Haley was not so favorably disposed to the former reality TV star. She used her January 2016 delivery of the Republican response to Obama’s last State of the Union address as an opportunity to warn the nation about the dangers of Trump’s brand of populism. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.” Less than a year later, however, when the head of Trump’s presidential transition team, Reince Priebus, reached out to her with an enticing job offer, she could hardly resist.
Haley told the CNP crowd that Priebus initially offered to make her secretary of state. “I thought the job should go to someone who didn’t have the same learning curve,” she said, conceding that she was not qualified for a top diplomatic position.
Days later, the president pitched another opportunity: US Ambassador to the UN. “I told [Trump], ‘Honestly, I don’t even know what the UN does,’” Haley revealed. The crowd erupted with sympathetic laughter and applause, apparently untroubled by Haley’s confession of ignorance.
“I finally decided that I could take the job, but with a few conditions,” she continued. “I told the president I wanted to be a cabinet secretary. And he said, ‘I can do that.’ I said I wanted to serve on his National Security Council. ‘Done.’ Then I said I’m not going to be a wallflower or a spokesperson. I want to be able to have a decision-making role and give my advice on policy. And he said, ‘Done!’”
As she wrapped up her remarks, Haley beamed with pride and placed her right hand to her heart. “I have been able to lead the state that raised me and been able to serve the country I love so much,” she declared. “I have been such a lucky girl.”
She then basked in a standing ovation, smiling as she accepted her anointing by the cabal of well-funded activists that effectively represented the vast right wing.
With her speech to the CNP, Nikki Haley was following in the footsteps of the last two Republican presidents. In his 1999 address to the CNP, George W. Bush reportedly promised that he would appoint only anti-abortion judges to the high courts if its members backed his run for president. At an October 2015 CNP forum, Donald Trump won over the leaders of the Christian right by emphasizing his preternatural connection with the party’s resentful base of Middle American left-behinds. Several CNP members would go on to serve in Trump’s White House, including Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. (This October’s gathering also featured a speech from Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who recently wiped out the entire advisory board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with the stroke of a pen.
The CNP holds its meetings in the strictest secrecy, refusing entrance to members of the media and keeping the locations of its events private. In his opening remarks this year, Tony Perkins announced that unauthorized video and audio recording were forbidden, joking that “If you’re caught, you will be taken to a room and be forced to watch Rachel Maddow.” This month, however, the CNP’s embargo was broken by Lee Fang, a reporter for The Intercept. Tipped to the event’s location, Fang followed the crowd into the cavernous lobby of the Westin in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he rubbed shoulders with CNP participants.
While Fang was confined to the hotel lobby, I managed to gain admittance to the CNP’s hermetic inner sanctum. I owed my entree to the generosity of an antiwar conservative who has belonged for many years to the council and attempts to mobilize opposition to US-led military interventions from within the organization’s ranks. This summer, he submitted an application for me as his guest. I did not conceal my identity as a journalist, providing CNP staff with my full biography and personal information. Several days later, I received an email requesting a $675 contribution to the council, which operates both as a non-profit and a 501(c)(4) political action committee. As soon as the check was cashed, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of the right—for a few hours, at least.
I arrived at the conference after a panel on “the Deep State,” featuring James O’Keefe, the co-creator of the infamous ACORN video, and Tim Fitton, Judicial Watch president, had concluded. As I settled into a seat near the back of the Westin’s Grand Ballroom, a who’s who of the evangelical far right filed into the spacious auditorium. To my right sat Carol Swain, the African-American Vanderbilt University political science professor who blamed a “devil’s brew” of identity politics and multiculturalism for the mainstreaming of white nationalism. Ginni Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, was greeting old friends a few rows away. Nearby, I spotted Star Parker, a self-proclaimed former “welfare cheat,” who named her book Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats and recently branded the Democrats “the party of the Antichrist.” Frank Gaffney, who has raised millions to conduct an Islamophobic crusade and who helped orchestrate Trump’s Muslim travel ban, strode into the ballroom, where he was set to deliver a panel later on alongside a collection of Cold War-era hardliners. One of the few Catholics present amid the evangelicals was Frank Pavone, a fanatically anti-abortion priest who once filmed himself placing an aborted fetus on an altar while imploring followers to vote for Trump. And then there was Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel and author of the lascivious Starr Report (which was in part drafted by Brett Kavanaugh) arriving at the CNP to hawk his new memoir of the Clinton investigation.
Wondering if I was the only wandering Jew in this evangelical house, I flipped through the CNP membership directory and found Joel Chernoff, leader of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Messianic Jews are not actual Jews however: they worship Jesus while dressed in traditional Jewish garb, blowing shofars and singing their messiah’s praises in Hebrew. Hoping to deepen evangelical support for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has partnered with Chernoff and his allies in the Alliance for Israel Advocacy to lobby on Capitol Hill against all obstacles to Israel’s annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Tony Perkins opened the meeting by summoning everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. He emphasized the word “stand” for effect, making a not-so-subtle jibe at the “take a knee” protests against police brutality that have become familiar on NFL sidelines. Besides serving as president of the secretive CNP, the clean-cut, smooth-talking Perkins has previously headed up the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, transforming the outfit into a vanguard of the Christian right. Under Perkins, the FRC has become a factory for anti-gay and anti-abortion policies at the state and federal level.
The day before its conference, the CNP distributed a press release explaining that its leadership had chosen to meet in Charlotte to “stand in solidarity with North Carolina over political correctness.” This was a reference to a Republican bill introduced into the state legislature in 2016 to override a Charlotte city council ordinance requiring private businesses to maintain gender-neutral bathrooms. (Also among the featured speakers the CNP junketed into town was Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court case this year after refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, on religious grounds.)
As the meeting got underway, the excitement surrounding the conflict over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was palpable. Hand-picked by the right-wing Federalist Society and subsequently accused of sexual assault, Kavanaugh was the hero of the hour. During a session of member introductions, one CNP member announced there would be a private reception the following evening to “toast a glass of beer” for the Bud Light-loving belligerent who the evangelicals devoutly believe will enact their agenda on the court. “I like beer” had become their rallying cry.
At noon, Haley appeared at the lectern to a roaring ovation. Clad in a matching checkered sports jacket and skirt, the ambassador was flanked on each side by massive flatscreens projecting images of her most glorious moments at the United Nations. One showed her working a crowd of Venezuelan Maduro opposition activists, with a megaphone in hand, on a Manhattan street corner outside the UN General Assembly this September. In another, she was seen standing at the UN Security Council, waving photos of lifeless, shirtless children killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government and making the case for harshly punishing Damascus. Haley wasted little time justifying the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw this year from the UN Human Rights Council. She complained that countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and “the regime in Congo”—which was “burning babies alive and gang-raping their women”—had co-opted the international body to cover up their own abuses.
Though Saudi Arabia had also exploited its membership on the Human Rights Council to shield itself from scrutiny, Haley had hardly anything to say in her speech about the theocratic monarchy. This September, the Saudi government and the United Arab Emirates tried and failed to stop a UN Human Rights Council resolution to extend an investigation into their military assault on Yemen. Their faltering war to oust the Houthi militia from control over the northern half of the country has turned Yemen into the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, spawning an epidemic of cholera and plaguing large segments of the population with malnutrition. Haley has gone to excessive lengths to abet the Saudi–UAE military effort, partnering with officials from both countries to brand Iran as the lone source of the crisis.
Last December, inside a hangar at the Joint Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, Haley stood in front of the charred remnants of a ballistic missile fired by the Yemeni Houthi militia at Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Airport, and pointed to this stage prop as evidence of Iranian backing for the Houthis. (A UN panel that investigated the missile found “no evidence as to the identity of [its] broker or supplier.”) Seated in the front row were the Saudi and Emirati diplomats, who apparently assisted Haley’s presentation by providing the missile hulk to Washington. She went on to join the Saudis and only eleven other nations in opposition to a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the “imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.” (Since the apparent assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi columnist for the Washington Post, which has created an international firestorm, Haley has made no statement.)
Haley avoided mentioning her special relationship with Saudi Arabia at the CNP, focusing instead on her relentless one-woman campaign to protect another Middle Eastern country from scrutiny for its serial human rights abuses. The state of Israel had been condemned in scores of UN resolutions over the years, she complained, while Iran had been reprimanded just nine times. Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council was the least America could do to uphold its duty to protect Israel, she said, inspiring gales of applause from the crowd. She earned more roars of approval when she touted the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that drove a nail into the coffin of the US-led process to establish a Palestinian state. The applause reached its peak when Haley boasted of the pivotal role she played in cutting off American aid to millions of destitute Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). I looked over at Gaffney, the veteran anti-Islam activist, and saw an ecstatic grin cross his face as Haley described the cuts.
A diplomat who was present for several meetings with members of Trump’s foreign policy team over UN-related matters told me that Haley formed a personal vendetta when the General Assembly voted to condemn Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “The US will be taking names,” Haley rumbled before the December vote, vowing to punish nations that defied her boss. She then moved in to strangle the UNRWA, pushing for heavy cuts in US funding to the agency. In doing so, she appeared to be courting support from one of the most influential donors to the Republican Party. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire confidant of Netanyahu who contributed $5 million to Trump’s inauguration, had been the largest donor to the 527 political organizations that Haley formed while serving as South Carolina’s governor, with $250,000 in 2016. Her legacy of pro-Israel rabble rousing at the United Nations virtually guaranteed that Adelson’s beneficence would continue and will likely expand if she embarks on a presidential run.
Haley’s choice of aides at the United Nations offered another indication that she saw the high-profile diplomatic post as a springboard to the White House. Her top advisor at the United Nations was not a foreign policy expert but a veteran Republican consultant from her home state named Jon Lerner. A former adviser to Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a neoconservative darling, Lerner identified his mentor as Arthur Finkelstein, the notoriously cutthroat Republican operative who advised Netanyahu’s 1996 run for Israeli prime minister and helped him cobble together his 2013 right-wing governing coalition.
Haley’s lonely fight against Israel’s enemies was calculated to appeal not only to the Likudnik GOP donors who saw the self-proclaimed Jewish state as their fortified home, but also to the evangelicals who viewed the country as a landing pad for the Messiah. These included Tim LaHaye, a CNP veteran who coauthored the best-selling Left Behind series: Armageddon fantasy novels that identify the UN secretary-general as the Antichrist. If the admiring treatment Haley received from the CNP was any indication, she could count on support from rapture-ready pastors across the country, along with the flock of grassroots Republicans they shepherd to the polls each election day.
Not long after Haley left the auditorium, I was ejected from the CNP’s conference on the personal orders of its president, the eagle-eyed Tony Perkins. He recognized me because I have written about him in articles and in my book Republican Gomorrah. In the lobby, Perkins explained to me that the meeting was forbidden to members of the media, and especially to me. He had apparently not forgotten the article I published in 2005 that reported his signing of a check for $82,500 to David Duke—former Ku Klux Klan leader and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate—to purchase Duke’s mailing list on behalf of another GOP campaign. Perkins objected stringently to my reporting, but when I asked him to explain what I had gotten wrong, he said nothing of substance.
That night, I was on a plane back to Washington. Five days later, Haley was back in town as well—to announce her resignation at a surprise White House press conference beside Trump. “We hate to lose you,” Trump said to Haley. “But hopefully you’ll be coming back at some point. In maybe a different capacity. You can have your pick.”