She's the sheriff in high heels, who promises to kick her opponents into touch and as Donald Trump's Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley is already being picked as a future president, writes Nick Bryant.
the straightshooting Trump politician who could be the first female US president
Amidst all the fire and fury of Donald Trump’s first year in office, many in his orbit have seen their reputations either burned or torched. Some have been sacked. Others have been forced to resign. One, the former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has faced criminal indictment. Most of the women in the Trump inner circle have had a torrid time. Melania Trump cuts a forlorn figure, a reluctant First Lady trapped in an unhappy marriage. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, has faced a boycott of her clothing brand and been ostracised by New York high society.
One woman, though, has emerged as a star of the new administration, her reputation not only intact but enhanced. Nikki Haley, America’s Ambassador at the United Nations, has become the female face of the Trump’s administration’s controversial foreign policy. An Indian-American politician, whose birth name was Nimrata Randhawa, she is already being spoken of as a future president – maybe the first woman to shatter one of the most resilient glass ceilings in world politics. Washington watchers thought they may have glimpsed the future when Nikki Haley appeared last year at the podium of the White House briefing room wearing a black zipper outfit that wags on Twitter joked made her look like a galactic president. Certainly, it confirmed her stratospheric rise.
Nikki Haley, a former Governor of South Carolina who speaks with a Steel Magnolia twang, announced herself as America’s top diplomat at the UN with characteristically undiplomatic language. “I wear heels,” she said. “It's not for a fashion statement. It's because if I see something wrong, we're going to kick them every single time.” Her personal motto is, “Kick ’em with a smile.”
At the UN headquarters in New York, she cast herself immediately as the “new sheriff” in town and made clear from her first day that she would serve as the Trump administration’s eyes and ears. “For those that don’t have our backs, we’re taking names,” she warned other countries, a threat that brought sharp intakes of breath from alarmed diplomats. But she quickly won many over with her easy, “Hi y’all” southern charm.
This foreign policy novice also quickly established her credentials. At a time when Donald Trump had signalled a warming of relations with Vladimir Putin, she let rip at the Kremlin over its aggression in Ukraine. Then, when the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people in Syria, Nikki delivered one of the most dramatic speeches the Security Council had seen in years. In an electrifying moment of diplomatic theatre, she stood to her feet and brandished graphic photos of children who had been killed by poison gas. Eyeballing the Russian ambassador, the Assad regime’s strongest defender, she added: “How many more children need to die before Russia cares?” Nikki, who has two children of her own, spoke with the passion of a mother and also the steel of a military wife. Her husband Michael Haley is a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.
More recently, as the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy has meant that America is increasingly alone on the international stage, Nikki has sometimes found herself isolated. But she has relished taking on friends and foes alike, most recently when the United States announced it was moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which provoked a howl of international criticism. Speaking from the marble podium of the UN General Assembly, she again repeated her threat that she was “taking names” of those who opposed America.
“The strange thing is that there are two Haleys,” says Richard Gowan, a UN expert who teaches at Columbia University. “A lot of the time she is a solid diplomat who can compromise. But then there is hardline Haley. She has been one of the most hawkish voices in the administration, and turned pretty nasty in last month's debates over Jerusalem.”
The 46-year-old is so regularly in the media that she has eclipsed her supposed boss, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The former Texan oilman has not taken kindly to being upstaged. “He f***ing hates her,” a senior administration official told The New Yorker magazine.
Just before Christmas, Nikki Haley also infuriated the President. Asked in
a television interview about the women who have accused Mr Trump of sexually harassing or molesting them, Nikki replied: “They should be heard.” To amplify the point, she added: “They have every right to speak up.” Trump was incensed that she had broken from the White House line that the matter had been dealt with during the 2016 presidential campaign. But Nikki’s comments were widely seen as a deliberate attempt to distance herself from an unpopular President ahead of a possible future White House run. In Michael Wolff’s bestselling blockbuster Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Nikki is described by a senior member of the Trump staff as “ambitious as Lucifer”, who has courted Ivanka Trump and positioned herself as the President’s heir apparent.
Hers is already a classic American Dream story. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants who moved to South Carolina from Punjab in the late 1960s. Her father, Ajit Singh, was a professor, and her mother, Raj Kaur, was also an academic before opening up an upscale clothing boutique, Exotica International. At the age of 13, Nimrata – who the family had by then nicknamed Nikki – started working as a bookkeeper in the family business. Already she is drawing comparisons with another daughter of a shopkeeper, Margaret Thatcher, who also happens to be her role model.
Nikki went on to study accounting at university, and worked in the unglamorous field of waste management. Then she returned to the family firm, which she helped build into a multimillion-dollar business. Even as a child she eyed a future in politics, as the mayor of her birthplace, Bamberg. Finally she decided to run for office in 2003 after listening to a speech from Donald Trump’s nemesis, Hillary Clinton.
The former first lady was delivering a speech at a nearby university on the call to public service, and Nikki Haley heard it loud and clear.
After first winning election to the state legislature in South Carolina in her early thirties, she went on to defy political gravity in 2010 by winning the Governorship of one of America’s most conservative states. Not only was she the first woman to occupy the Governor’s mansion, but the first person of colour.
Racism, more so than sexism, is a hurdle she has continually confronted and overcome. When her Sikh family moved to Bamberg, the sight of her father wearing his turban alarmed many local residents. Her parents also found it hard to rent a house in this once-segregated community. When finally a landlord agreed, he banned them from entertaining anyone in their home. Nikki herself became aware of this racial divide as a five-year-old when she entered a beauty pageant that awarded separate prizes for the most beautiful white and black children. Because she did not fit into either category, she was disqualified. At the pageant she planned to perform the song, “This land is your land, this land is my land”.
Now she is well positioned to win the biggest prize in American politics. Presently, her taxpayer-funded home is a luxury Manhattan penthouse that overlooks both the United Nations and a Trump skyscraper next door.
But it will come as no great surprise if, over the next decade, she comes to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the grandeur of the White House.
Nick Bryant is the BBC's New York correspondent.
“Nikki is as ambitious as Lucifer. ”
Nikki Haley is making waves as the US Ambassador to the UN, as some speculate she’s carving a path to the top job. BELOW: With President Trump in March 2017.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Being sworn in as South Carolina’s Governor in 2011; in Turkey in May 2017; visiting India in 2014.
ABOVE, LEFT TO RIGHT: Holding up pictures of victims of a Syrian chemical weapons attack during a dramatic UN Security Council speech in April 2017; attending a briefing at the White House last year. Nikki has recently been seen as distancing herself from President Trump.