Nikki Haley sent a clear message to Donald Trump on Monday: If you run for president, I’m out.
“I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it,” Haley said in response to a question from The Associated Press during a news conference at South Carolina State University when asked if she would support another White House bid from Trump. “That’s something that we will have a conversation about, at some point.”
Asked whether she would support Trump if he ran again, Haley responded simply “yes.”
That represents a MASSIVE shift from what Haley was saying about Trump — and his future in politics — just a few months ago.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” Haley told Politico’s Tim Alberta in February. She added of Trump: “He’s not going to run for federal office again. … I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture. I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”
Which is different than what she said on Monday! Like, a lot different!
So, what changed? Let me walk you through my theory.
Haley talked to Alberta — blasting Trump and predicting that he would never run again for office — in January, with the images of the January 6 US Capitol riot very much top-of-mind. (Alberta’s piece was based on a series of interviews with Haley over several months and didn’t come out until early February.)
Haley was, I believe, genuinely outraged over Trump’s behavior on January 6. The day after the riot, Haley said this in a keynote address to the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Florida:
“President Trump has not always chosen the right words. He was wrong with his words in Charlottesville, and I told him so at the time. He was badly wrong with his words yesterday. And it wasn’t just his words. His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”
There was also political calculation on Haley’s part. Trump was being blasted in almost every corner of the country for inciting the crowd on January 6 and then waiting to call them off. There were real questions as to whether this — finally — would be the breaking point for Republicans with Trump.
So Haley made a bit of a gamble. She went on record distancing herself with Trump, so that if the January 6 riot did destroy any future for him in politics, she would not be dragged down with him.
Of course, with three months of hindsight, we know that isn’t the way things played out. Almost 150 Republicans — 139 House members and eight senators — voted to object to the Electoral College results in Pennsylvania or Arizona. (Those votes happened the same day of the riot.) Politicians — like Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley — became heroes among Trump conservatives for their ongoing (and fact-free) opposition to the 2020 election. Trump doubled down on his ridiculous rhetoric — and saw his base follow right along with him. (In a Quinnipiac University national poll in February, 76% of Republicans said that there was “widespread fraud in the 2020 election” despite zero evidence for that claim.)
Taken as a whole, what the last few months have proven is that Trump (and Trumpism) isn’t going anywhere — January 6 or not. In fact, there’s already been considerable re-writing of history of that day by Trump allies to somehow suggest the rioters were peaceful (they were not) or that the violence was stoked by Antifa activists (it was not).
Which brings us to Monday and Haley. Given that January 6 didn’t ruin Trump, Haley needed to recalibrate her relationship to the former President. She couldn’t have the last thing she said about him be that he has “fallen so far” and that he couldn’t possibly run for president again. That would put her far out of step with the GOP base. And that is no place to be for a candidate who wants to run for president.
Here’s Haley’s calculation: If Trump does run again in 2024, he will be nearly impossible to beat because of his immense popularity within the GOP. If he doesn’t run again, then she will need to have Trump (or at least the Trump base) on her side. And in order for that to happen, she had to make nice with Trump. And that’s what she tried to do on Monday.