President Donald Trump shakes hands with Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Oval office of the White House on October 9, 2018.
By Oliver Douliery/Getty Images. OLIVIER DOULIERY
The news that Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, would be the guest of honor at a donor dinner organized by G.O.P. mega-donor Paul Singer later this month, set off a familiar wave of speculation. Would Haley, a shining star in the Republican Party, run against Donald Trump in 2020? “Alarm bells going off in Trump world,” Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator and the founder of the now defunct Weekly Standard magazine, wrote on Twitter, suggesting that the former South Carolina governor could be “a possible replacement for Trump in 2020.”
Kristol, of course, is the ur-Never-Trumper, and this was wishful thinking. Haley allies and G.O.P. strategists were quick to dismiss the speculation that the former ambassador would primary her former boss. “Guys like Bill Kristol are about as reliable as a broken Magic 8 Ball these days when it comes to politics,” Rob Godfrey, Haley’s former deputy chief of staff and chief spokesperson, told me Monday.
Certainly, under almost all circumstances, it would be foolish for Haley to challenge Trump. The president currently enjoys an 88 percent approval rating among Republicans—all but guaranteeing that he will be the G.O.P. nominee, unless he leaves office or decides not to run. If she were to launch a primary bid, Haley would also squander all the good will with the president’s MAGA base she’s worked so hard to build up in her two-year tenure in Turtle Bay. “There is no environment in which she is going to run against Trump. That is her ticket,” one G.O.P. operative told me. “That would be like Tom Brady trying to push out Bill Belichick . . . That would never happen.”
Haley herself has been unequivocal in her support of Trump in 2020. But that doesn’t mean she’s not laying the groundwork for an Oval Office bid. It is hard to identify a Republican politician with greater star power than Haley. Her reported $200,000 price tag for speaking events would suggest a high demand for the ambassador. Even among Democrats, she boasts a 55 percent approval rating. And by the standards set after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, in a pre-Trump world, Haley—a daughter of immigrants; tough on bigotry with all the right politics—could be a vessel for a new Republican Party. “Nikki Haley is one of the brightest stars that the Republican Party has and is somebody who has universal approval within the party,” Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, told me. “Any talk in the 2020 context is making too much of this. What she does after that? I think it is up to her and she can go very, very far.”
Singer, a fervent anti-Trumper in 2016, is a useful, deep-pocketed friend to have in her corner. And a Haley-Singer alliance would certainly be symbiotic. During the 2016 election, the billionaire hedge-fund manager threw millions behind Haley’s No. 1 draft pick in the Republican primary, Senator Marco Rubio. Notably, Jon Lerner, a Republican pollster who managed Haley’s successful gubernatorial bid and served as one of her top aides at the United Nations, ran the pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC during the 2016 cycle. “Obviously, this is the first event of the Ambassador’s 2024 presidential campaign,” Terry Sullivan, who worked as Rubio’s campaign manager, said of the Singer event.
Nearly half a dozen G.O.P. sources agreed that Haley is well-positioned for the next election cycle. “She’s almost certain to run for president in 2024, probably against Vice President [Mike] Pence, Governor [Greg] Abbott, and a slew of U.S. senators. It will be a feeding frenzy, not unlike the Democratic brawl we face currently,” said George Seay, a prominent Texas-based G.O.P. donor who also initially backed Rubio in the last presidential cycle. Of course, he cautioned, “This is many years out.”
While history would suggest that Pence would be first in the line of succession, there is a sense among some Republicans that his lapdog act has cost him, and the telegenic and compelling Haley would easily eclipse him in a crowded field. “Nobody thinks that Mike Pence has availed himself very well to take the next step,” the G.O.P. operative told me. “He might be [a 2024 candidate], but nobody respects his political juice because he looks like one of those service puppies that you take on an airplane.”
Of course, there is a non-zero chance that Trump won’t be leading the Republican ticket in 2020. As Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors tunnel out of the spotlight and newly empowered House Democrats probe everything from the president’s foreign ties to his son-in-law’s security clearance, Trump faces an unprecedented level of scrutiny in his second two years in office—and no one knows where it might end. As Sullivan put it, “Anything is possible on the Trump Show.”
This story has been updated.