“With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
These eight words from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will go down as among the most powerful indictments of the rancid governing culture President Trump has fostered. They may also shed light on one of the great mysteries of the moment: Why is it that Trump regularly backs off when it comes to confronting Vladimir Putin and Russia?
The matter-of-factness of Haley’s comment made it all the more acidic. She was pushing back against efforts by White House staffers to toss her overboard after she had declared, firmly and unequivocally, that the United States intended to impose fresh sanctions on Russia in response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Moscow’s Syrian ally, Bashar Assad.
“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” she said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Haley was very specific. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, she asserted, “will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already, and they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.”
Her comments seemed fully consistent with the goal of the missile attacks on Syrian facilities involved in chemical warfare that Trump proudly touted as a signal of his toughness and resolve. There were no indications that Haley was freelancing and she was not initially contradicted by the White House.
But one man watching her was very unhappy about what he saw. It turned out that Trump, who has said over and over that he longs for better relations with Putin, either changed his mind on new sanctions or was not privy to his own administration’s policy.
On Monday, the president put out word that there would be no new sanctions for now. This sent the cover-story specialists he employs at the White House scurrying to undercut Haley. Most of them did their hatchet work anonymously. One of them said condescendingly that Haley had made “an error that needs to be mopped up.”
Perhaps because he is not yet accustomed to this White House’s stab-in-the-back culture, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic adviser, jabbed in the front and on the record, telling CNN that Haley “got ahead of the curve.” For good measure, he said that “there might have been some momentary confusion.”
This is what brought Haley to insist that her own confusion was not the problem. She was simultaneously rebuking the Trumpian modus operandi and, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out, sending a substantive message: that “Trump and/or the White House did change their minds — that their increasingly tough posture on Russia has at least momentarily been arrested.”
Trump’s repeated flinching on Russian policy feeds suspicions as to why the Kremlin worked to get him elected, which we know they did, and whether Russia’s intelligence services have information to use against him, which is yet to be established.
There is strange justice in the fact that Trump’s behavior played straight into former FBI Director James Comey’s blanket-the-media book tour. Consider this statement by Comey to USA Today: “There’s a non-zero possibility that the Russians have some, some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience, and I don’t know whether that’s the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else.”
Until “non-zero” becomes zero — or 100 percent — there is an obligation on the part of the media and government investigators to figure out what in the world is going on here.
Kudlow, by the way, violated another Trump norm. In a never-apologize world, he graciously admitted to The New York Times that he was “totally wrong.” You wonder what Trump made of his act of contrition.
You also wonder what lesson Haley will take from joining the ranks of Trump servants who have been undercut from the top. Since her job involves being one of the leading articulators of American policy to the world, the president has now rendered her assignment meaningless, impossible or perhaps both.
And with those busy and nameless White House chatterers leaking word that Trump is uneasy with her ambition — God forbid that anyone in this “I alone can fix it” government should think about advancing her own career — her fate may not be entirely in her own hands.
Haley would be better off leaving this listing ship on her own terms even as the rest of us ponder why its captain seems incapable of steering a steady course.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
E.J. Dionne Jr.: Nikki Haley’s SOS to the nation
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”