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How Nikki Haley Became Trump’s Mini-Me

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted the following message Tuesday in anticipation of a planned vote in the General Assembly this week on a motion calling for the Trump administration to withdraw its decision recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:

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The message feels very familiar. The blustery tone, the notion that other countries owe the U.S. unquestioning fealty, the indifference to the fact that the “names” the U.S. will be taking will include close allies like Britain and France, even the self-aggrandizing photo and capitalization—this is a message that could easily have come from the itchy Twitter fingers of Trump himself.

It can often seem as if the Trump administration has two foreign policies: one, a fairly standard, hawkish approach that emphasizes a balance of power politics and alliance building; the other, a bellicose and erratic approach, aimed as much at scoring domestic political points as accomplishing international goals, that relies on threats issued via Twitter and treats international alliances as protection rackets. Both approaches were arguably on display Monday in the fairly routine National Security Strategy document released by the White House and the contradictory speech delivered by the president to introduce it.

If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are the main public advocates for the former approach, Haley has surprisingly become the face of the latter. As a former official told New York magazine recently, “Her gut instincts are very similar to those of the president, which is probably why they have been so in sync.”

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Haley reportedly teamed up with Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff John Kelly to argue in favor of Trump’s embassy move over the objections of Tillerson and Mattis, who were worried about the diplomatic fallout and potential for violence.

She’s been right behind the president’s threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea, accusing Pyongyang of “begging for war” and declaring that the North Korean regime would be “utterly destroyed” if such a war broke out. She has defended Trump’s “little rocket man” jibes, saying his bluntness is “very much appreciated.”

She has also been the face of the Trump administration’s diplomatic offensive against Iran. Last week, she gave a speech in front of what officials said was an Iranian-made missile fired by Yemeni Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia, and she vowed to “build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing.” Defense reporters were unimpressed, with the New York Times noting that “American officials failed to show how an array of weaponry presented as evidence proved the charges” leveled against Iran, but the optics were hard to beat. And emphasizing a message that’s sure to please the boss, she takes every opportunity to boast about cuts to the U.N. budget.

When Haley was first appointed, it seemed unlikely that she would become the member of his team to most eagerly embrace his worldview. She had sparred with Trump during his campaign, saying that Americans “want to know they’re sending someone up to the White House that’s going to be calm and cool-tempered and not get mad at someone just because they criticize him. We would really have a world war if that happens.” During her confirmation hearing, she told senators that she saw it as part of her job to convince Trump of the importance of international alliances. Moreover, as a governor with few defined foreign policy views, her appointment seemed like evidence that Trump simply didn’t take the job of U.N. ambassador very seriously.

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And yet, with the White House continually undermining her main rival, Tillerson, and with Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster carefully choosing their battles, Haley often seems to be the high-ranking administration official whose statements actually represent her boss’s opinions. It doesn’t hurt that, unlike those men, she seems to enjoy being on TV and tweeting.

There are some divergences, namely Russia. Where Trump is more likely to tout the benefits of cooperation with Moscow, Haley has denounced the Russians as “shameful” for standing up for the Assad regime in Syria. While Trump still often refuses to acknowledge that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Haley has referred to that interference as “warfare.” Haley is also far more likely than the president to emphasize the U.S. role in promoting human rights.

Haley’s talk of democracy and human rights and tough stance on Russia have led some, including a former Bush administration official quoted in the New York article, to suggest that rather than a true Trumpian, she’s a closet neocon, building a beachhead for the freedom agenda in the “America First” White House.

More likely, she’s simply a skilled politician who’s found a way to use her current position to keep her boss happy without damaging her own public standing or future job prospects.

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