Haley exits on her own terms, but some question her timing

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Nikki Haley (Photo: Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — Departures from U.S. President Donald Trump's Cabinet are rarely dignified affairs. Jettisoned officials have learned of their fates by tweet or ill-timed phone call or following a humiliating leak.

So it was a novelty Tuesday when Trump and outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared together in the Oval Office, cheerfully announcing an end-of-year exit that caught most of the West Wing and State Department unaware and led to grumbles about inopportune political timing.

"I thought this would be an appropriate way of doing it. When you write it out on a piece of paper that 'Ambassador Haley will be leaving' and you say nice things, people say, 'What's going on?' " the President said. "When you really think somebody has done a terrific job, I felt this was an appropriate way of doing it."

Appropriate or not, Haley's decision to announce her resignation four weeks ahead of midterm congressional elections and immediately after a bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle that laid bare deep political faults on sex and gender led to questions about her timing.

And it exposed what has sometimes been a fraught relationship between Haley and other administration officials, who viewed her both as an effective face of administration policy and an ambitious political operator willing to break ranks.

That dynamic became apparent after Trump revamped the top of his national security team earlier this year, swapping more moderate advisers for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Those changes occurred last March — roughly the same time Haley first told the President of her intentions to resign.

 

'Time to step aside'

 

In the Oval Office, Haley insisted she made her decision not for personal reasons, but because she felt she'd served long enough.

"I think that it's just very important for government officials to understand when it's time to step aside. And I have given everything I've got these last eight years," she said, referring to time spent both as the UN envoy and as South Carolina governor. "And I do think that sometimes it's good to -- to rotate in other people who can put that same energy and power into it."

Still, neither Trump nor his top aides were looking to announce the departure of one of the administration's highest-profile women just as Republicans work to repair whatever damage was inflicted by an ugly confirmation fight for Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice who was accused by women of sexual assault.

Haley's resignation letter was dated October 3 and officials said she informed the President of her intentions during a meeting in the Oval Office that day. The previous evening, Trump publicly mocked one of Kavanaugh's accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, during a Mississippi campaign rally, drawing condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Making Haley's departure public then would have caused further complications for the Kavanaugh confirmation, officials said.

The lack of forewarning led to griping among some aides that Haley was again stepping out on her own on a day the President was still basking in the glow of the ultimately successful Kavanaugh nomination.

"A lot of people would celebrate," Trump told reporters later as he was departing for a campaign rally in Iowa. "We go back to business the next day."

 

'I don't get confused'

 

As UN ambassador, Haley has carved out her own space in the public sphere as a prominent voice on issues ranging from alleged Syrian war crimes to Russia's aggressive behavior around the globe, even when her rhetoric got ahead of the President's views.

In recent months, however, Haley had lost clout with the President, two people familiar with their relationship noted in wake of her resignation. When Rex Tillerson was still secretary of state, Trump sought out Haley's advice often and was regularly seen in the Oval Office, the people said.

But when the President orchestrated a revamp of his national security team — replacing Tillerson with Pompeo and bringing in Bolton, who served in the same UN post as Haley under President George W. Bush — Haley saw her time with the President diminish.

When she stepped out in April to announce the U.S. would sanction Russian companies linked to Syria's chemical weapons program, the White House refuted her the next day, announcing Trump had decided not to move forward with the sanctions. Some White House officials, including the President's top economic adviser, were quick to discount her in public, claiming she was mistaken.

"With all due respect, I don't get confused," Haley struck back, in a stunning statement.

The past discord aside, Trump sought to make Haley's resignation a decorous event. It was the President's own idea to make the Oval Office announcement, an official said, but there was a behind-the-scenes scramble in the hour or so leading up to it because her decision took senior officials across the board by surprise — par for the course at this stage in the administration, one exasperated senior White House official said.

"The President and the ambassador wanted to do it. And he's the boss," the official said. "This is the way the White House works."

As rumors began to circulate early Tuesday that Haley was stepping down, even senior level White House aides were caught off guard, and downplayed the whispers as mere gossip. Confidants of Haley's from South Carolina, who had spoken to their friend over the past week, said they received little indication she was preparing her imminent resignation. Top State Department officials received no warning the announcement was coming.

Haley arrived to the White House around 10 a.m. ET, walked past a crowd of reporters and refused to confirm then-unverified reports she was stepping down. She did not have a meeting on the President's public schedule.

Haley, officials said, insisted on giving the news privately to the President, though Trump later said she'd informed him six months ago she planned to depart after serving for two years in the administration.

It wasn't until last week during a scheduled meeting at the White House that Haley officially informed Trump of her plans to resign, two sources familiar with the meeting said. But Trump and Haley decided to keep it under wraps, with only a small group of the President's closest aides looped in before Tuesday morning.

The timing of the Tuesday morning announcement also raised eyebrows, coming a day after the ethics watchdog group CREW filed a government complaint alleging Haley undervalued the cost of flights she took on private planes owned by South Carolina businessmen.

"No, I know nothing about that," Trump said when asked by CNN whether the complaint affected the timing. "I know Nikki. This is one of the most honest human beings I have ever seen."

 

Possible replacements

 

Trump, who said in the Oval Office he would announce Haley's successor in the next several weeks, has a working list of possible contenders. But even as he works to tap a replacement, he has not shared that list widely with even most senior White House officials, one aide said.

Among those speculated to be under consideration: Dina Powell, the former deputy national security adviser who departed the administration last year; Richard Grenell, the firebrand U.S. ambassador to Germany who is close to Bolton; and even Ivanka Trump, the President's eldest daughter who Haley praised during her remarks on Tuesday.

A source familiar with discussions said the President's daughter laughed Tuesday morning when she heard about the speculation that she would replace Haley. And Trump himself shot down the notion he would nominate her later in the afternoon.

"I think Ivanka would be incredible, but it doesn't mean I'd pick her, because I'd be accused of nepotism even though I'm not sure there's anybody more competent in the world," he said on the South Lawn.

He did not downplay the chances he could select Powell, who is now a senior executive at Goldman Sachs and recently spent time with Haley and her husband in South Carolina.

"Dina is certainly a person I would consider and she is under consideration," he said.

It's long been expected that Haley would be among the Cabinet officials to leave by the end of the year, joining an expected exodus after the midterm elections that could also include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump despises and has openly said he could replace.

A person close to Haley suggested she selected Tuesday for her announcement as a way to separate herself from the other departures.

"She wanted to make her own announcement now — not after the midterms — when there is a wave of people leaving if Republicans lose," the person said, who added that by putting word out now that she was leaving, Haley was essentially notifying potential employers of her availability in the new year.

Haley, who has served in elected positions for years and will soon pay for two children in college, is eager to bolster her financial standing, a person familiar with her thinking said. In her resignation letter to Trump, Haley implied her next act would come outside government.

"As a businessman, I expect you will appreciate my sense that returning from government to the private sector is not a step down but a step up," she wrote.

This story was first published on CNN.com "Haley exits on her own terms, but some question her timing"