In early October, I sat down to talk with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley about her ascent for a special forthcoming issue of New York Magazine on women’s power. She’d recently returned from meeting with the president in Washington, D.C., where presumably she discussed her intentions to resign from her position less than a week later. When she announced her decision publicly on October 9, she did so with little explanation, saying only that she’s not running for president in 2020. “I look forward to supporting the president in the next election,” she said. Haley does nothing by accident and she gives notoriously few sit-down interviews: There’s no doubt she saw it as advantageous to sit down with New York Magazine on the eve of her resignation. Even as I conversed with Haley, all I could think of was how hard she was working to create distance from Trump and all the toxic divisiveness of Congress, positioning herself as a kinder, more compassionate representative of the GOP, open to the hurt of the world, connected to her immigrant roots — and strategic enough to keep Trump on her side as she plots her next move. Our interview took place two days before the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and a precondition of the interview was no questions about Kavanaugh. When I raised the subject anyway, I was shut down. In other words, don’t expect Haley to dish before she’s ready. As she says in the interview, “I’ve always thought that silence is power and that discipline is power.”
I heard that you’re still in touch with at least one of the survivors of the Charleston shooting. Is that true?
Yes. Felicia Sanders. I just texted with her last week.
What is your relationship like?
We went through something that was tragic, and I just wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Here you had these 12 people who just did what normal South Carolinians do, and they went to Bible study. But on this day, someone showed up that didn’t look like them, didn’t act like them, didn’t sound like them. And they didn’t call the police, and they didn’t throw him out. They pulled up a chair and prayed with him for almost an hour. Felicia not only went through that, she lost her son. She lost her aunt. She had to throw herself on her granddaughter and tell her granddaughter to play dead. And she had to hear it all. I know details about that night that were not public, and it’s haunting. I think I’ve pulled from Felicia’s strength. Felicia had such grace, but they all did. Even when groups came in wanting to cause hate or rhetoric, not out of ill will but out of the fact that they were upset, they [the survivors] helped me hold it at bay.
You must have made a lot of decisions over the years that you knew were going to piss people off.
In every job I’ve had, I think I have. With the Confederate flag issue. I mean, that was one where…
Was that a difficult decision for you?
No, when I first became governor, Democrats and Republicans both told me, “Don’t go there,” because it had been so painful in 2000. [In 2000, the state legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome and place a smaller flag on the grounds of the Capitol instead.] So you go on with your life, and then this happens, and the thought I had was, “This no longer means what you want it to mean.” You had a group of people who saw it as heritage and service and their ancestors died for something. And then this other group of people saw it thinking slavery and all the things that were bad. But now all of those people would never be able to look at that flag again and not think of that guy and that shooting because he was all over the internet holding those flags. All I thought about were the children of South Carolina. All I thought about was, “How do I look my son and my daughter in the eye, and tell them it’s still okay for that to be up there?”
But you must have also known that the right white base in South Carolina was gonna be activated by that.
And they were.
Did you worry about it? Were you second-guessing yourself?
In all of these hard decisions, in my mind I get what I think is right. I had to convince an entire legislature that was very old guard to do this. But I knew that I believed it was right, and I knew it was my job to communicate why it was right. The key is the communication side of it, because it can’t be right just because you think it’s right. You’ve got to communicate it to the point that the others think it’s in their best interest to do the same thing. Even here [at the U.N.] if there’s something that happens, and a decision’s been made that I don’t agree with, I don’t just accept the decision. I go to the people making the decision and say, “This is why I think it’s wrong. This is what I think we can do about it, and I bet we can do it better if we do this.”
Can you tell me about negotiating for your current job? When the president was elected, there was conversation about you becoming secretary of State, and then this job came up and you were like, “Not that. This.” And then you said, “I want to be in the Cabinet, and to be on the Security Council.” That was all part of a negotiation.
What was your intention? How did you think that through?
I knew, having been governor, you can’t go work for other people easily. So, to me, I wanted it to be a Cabinet position, too. I was only accountable to him, and then I could speak directly with him. He said yes immediately. I’m a policy girl. I really jump into policy, and I told him that I need to be on the National Security Council because I wanted to be in the room where the decisions were made. He said, “Done.” And then I told him, “But I’m not gonna be a wallflower or a talking head.”
And why not secretary of State, which is a bigger job?
I think you have to know what’s right for you at the right time. I’m all about pushing myself and jumping into risks, and this job was that. It was realistic. That was not. I was coming from being a domestic policy person as governor, and really the only thing I had done was go to countries to sell companies to come to South Carolina. I don’t put myself in the situation unless I can make sure that I’m great at it. That was what my mom always taught me. She said, “Whatever you do, be great at it and make sure people remember you for it.”
It also keeps you out of toxic D.C.
I knew that this was more my speed.
I was thinking about the time the White House reversed itself on additional sanctions on Russia, a decision you’d already announced, and then economic advisor Larry Kudlow accused you of “momentary confusion.” You responded by saying, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
I mean, look, Larry Kudlow is a dear friend, dear friend. I saw him last week and gave him the biggest hug. But the thing is, it wasn’t right to say it. Multiple people in the administration knew it wasn’t right. I had given time for things to get fixed, and I just — that was it. We weren’t gonna have this. It’s important to stand up for yourself. It wasn’t just me saying that about me. This entire building, they would have had to deal with the fact that I was confused. Can’t have that.
But it’s also an insult to your intelligence.
It was, and he knew that. And he quickly, quickly, I mean within minutes, apologized. He was beside himself sorry.
Do you think that being a southern woman helps you with diplomacy?
I do think coming from the South taught me a lot. You can call it diplomacy, I call it respect. In the South, you learn to kick with a smile. You learn to move your way around forcefully, but you’re kind about it and you’re respectful about it. I learned early that I’m a fighter by nature, and so I kick with a smile. You can get your way and still be kind.
Have you talked to the president about that?
About that mode of communication?
I have never tried to. I have talked to him about certain instances and said, “That was not helpful,” or “You could’ve done that differently.” But he is who he is. He was elected because of who he is — how he talks and how he does things and what he does. I would never think it was my place to go and fix him because it’s not easy to win president of the United States. And it’s not easy to continue to be president of the United States. And he’s doing it well and getting things done. Is he offending people? Yes. But he’s got just as many people loving what he’s saying. I have at times said things weren’t helpful, but …
Can you give me a for instance?
No, because I keep those really private, but he really takes them very well when I do that. Sometimes he’ll say, “I know, Nikki. I knew you were gonna say that,” or “You always tell me that.” Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he says, “That’s who I am. They love it.” Look, he’s not gonna change for me. And he’s not gonna change now, and, frankly, whatever he’s doing is working.
What do you think about the problem of Republican women going into the midterms? There’s a big gap.
I think women don’t vote in a bloc as much as so many would like to think we do, but I just think we’re not loud about it. That’s Republican women. It does seem like the Democrats are more vocal, but don’t underestimate the strength and power of Republican women. We just do things more quietly.
So do you think that the polls that are showing as much as a 20-point gap in women voting for Republican candidates in some states are wrong?
I just think they’re not gonna show their cards. I think women don’t show their cards because they don’t have to. I mean, did we ever say that women were gonna come out in huge numbers for the president at the last election? We never saw that in any poll. We didn’t see that because women aren’t gonna talk about that.
Why do you think that is?
I think that we are very strong in our beliefs. I don’t think that we feel like we need to publicize it. We do our responsible duty in voting and in being a part of things in our own way. I personally, I keep my cards very close.
Yes, you do.
So I think that it’s power. I think I’ve always thought that silence is power and that discipline is power.
Can you give me an example from your life where you learned that?
I don’t know that anything happened to me as much as I have always observed people. I love to people watch. And it’s not just a catchphrase when they say loose lips sink ships. I’ve watched in the South Carolina legislature. I saw that people would speak thinking it gave them power, saying what they knew from private conversation to try and gain favor with everybody else. But all that tells me is you can’t keep a secret, and I’m not ever telling you anything. And so I see that people like to name-drop and they like to talk about things. It is usually men that do it, but I mean, we don’t need that. We don’t feel the need to name-drop. We don’t feel the need to prove ourselves in that way.
I learned as a reporter that the best way to get somebody talking is to just not say anything.
It’s very true. That causes people to weaken. When you stay silent, they feel like they have to say something. And you can pull so much from that.
You’re saying that women have an autonomy and an independence that we’re not giving them credit for.
It kills me when they say “the women vote.” There is no women vote. We all think differently on different issues. We vote differently.
You must be in rooms with men who don’t want you to succeed. How do you handle those men?
I just ignore them and push right through it.
Do you ever lie awake and go, “My boss is really out to get me”?
You’re gonna have challenges in every job, and the best way to overcome it is to be so fantastic at your job they can’t touch you.
Those are some pretty powerful men, though.
I’m pretty powerful.