(JTA) — Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who became a pro-Israel favorite during her two years as the Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, announced her bid for the presidency, becoming the first Republican to challenge the former president ahead of 2024.
In a video released Tuesday, Haley did not name Donald Trump, but alluded to him as a polarizing figure, emphasizing her efforts as governor at tamping down racial tensions and also suggesting that the Republican Party was alienating moderate Americans.
“We turned away from fear toward God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest in the world,” Haley said, describing her 2015 decision to remove Confederate flags from state properties after a racist gunman murdered nine Black worshippers in a Charleston church. “We must turn in that direction again. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change.”
Singling out her removal of the flags stands in her contrast with Trump, who has made a point of upholding resistance to the removal of Confederate monuments. Haley also leans in the 3.5-minute video into her roots as the child of Indian immigrants, another distinction from Trump, who has embraced anti-immigrant movements and has garnered the support of white supremacists. Trump announced his third run for the presidency in November.
Haley, as a governor with a national reputation, was already on the pro-Israel radar when Trump in 2017 named her as his first ambassador to the United Nations. Heading into the job, she consulted closely with pro-Israel groups and forged a close alliance with Israel’s delegation to the body.
Soon she was at the forefront of reversing decades of U.S. policy at the United Nations, preventing the hiring of Palestinians for top jobs, scrubbing Israel-critical reports, quitting the U.N. Human Rights Council and influencing Trump’s cutting of funding to UNRWA, the body providing relief to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
That profile soon made her a star at conferences of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where she consistently drew crowds and applause. It was at an AIPAC conference, in fact, when she coined her personal motto: “I wear high heels. It’s not for a fashion statement, it’s because if I see something wrong I will kick it every single time.”
Haley quit her ambassadorship at the end of 2018, but increased her pro-Israel profile. She used an appearance at the 2019 AIPAC conference to announce the establishment of her advocacy group, Stand for America, the first substantive sign she was running for president. She is a star speaker at the Republican Jewish Coalition and used the RJC platform in 2021 to chide AIPAC for what she said was an overemphasis on bipartisanship.
She has also cultivated Trump’s Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who led Middle East diplomacy under Trump. Kushner’s father Charles has raised funds for her.
Haley used a version of her motto in her video Tuesday, in a way that could be read as a warning to Trump, who takes no prisoners in deriding opponents: “I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more. If you’re wearing heels.” Haley notably called Trump a bully when in 2016 she backed a rival, Marco Rubio, for the GOP presidential nomination.
Haley’s relationship with Trump is characterized by wariness: Effusively praising him at times and then criticizing him. She seemed to cut him off entirely after the deadly Capitol insurrection by his supporters in 2021. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him,” she told Politico the day after the riot. “And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Within weeks, as it became clear that the GOP was not yet quitting Trump, Haley tried to make any talk of her differences with him the fault of the “liberal media.” “Strong speech by President Trump about the winning policies of his administration and what the party needs to unite behind moving forward,” she said on Twitter in March 2021 after Trump’s first post-presidency speech. “The liberal media wants a GOP civil war. Not gonna happen.”
Haley scores in the single digits in polling and announcing early is one way of getting her out in front; right now, Trump’s most formidable challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has yet to announce, although that has not stopped Trump from criticizing DeSantis almost daily.
Haley can count on pro-Israel money, but even there she has rivals. Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State who is also likely to announce a presidential bid, devoted a chunk of his recent autobiography to minimizing Haley’s role in the Trump administration, including in Trump’s Middle East policy. Pompeo accused Haley of plotting with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to replace Mike Pence as vice-president. Pence, who has broken with Trump, is also considering a presidential run and his deep ties in the pro-Israel community. PJC