KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Late last year, Nikki Haley had a friend who was going through a hard time. He had lost his job and was being evicted from his house. He was getting bad advice from bad people who were filling his head with self-destructive fantasies. He seemed to be losing touch with reality. Out of concern, Haley called the man. “I want to make sure you’re okay,” she told him. “You’re my president, but you’re also my friend.”
At the time of Haley’s call, Donald Trump—her “friend”—had spent much of the previous month refusing to concede defeat in an election he clearly lost, opting instead to delegitimize the institutions of government that upheld the result, indulge in outlandish conspiracy theories and generally subvert the country’s 244-year-old democratic norms. Republican leaders who possessed the credibility to dispute these claims publicly and exert a counterinfluence over the GOP electorate had chosen not to. Haley was among those who kept quiet.
For the previous four years, since being plucked from the governorship of South Carolina to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley had navigated the Trump era with a singular shrewdness, messaging and maneuvering in ways that kept her in solid standing both with the GOP donor class as well as with the president and his base. She maintained a direct line to Trump, keeping private her candid criticisms of him, while publicly striking an air of detached deference. Upon her resignation in 2018, the New York Times editorial page praised Haley as “that rarest of Trump appointees: one who can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.”
Haley told me about this phone call in the second week of December. We sat in the shadow of a twinkling 15-foot Christmas fir inside the parlor of the Kiawah Island Club, an exclusive lair nestled between two golf courses and the Atlantic Ocean where she has lived since returning to private life. I had come to talk with Haley about her future; about how the antics of the outgoing president might complicate her plans to pursue that very office in 2024. Knowing that she did not believe Trump’s conspiracy theories, I asked Haley whether she had attempted to persuade the president that he was wrong—that the election wasn’t rigged, that he had lost legitimately.
“No,” she replied. “When he was talking about that, I didn’t address it.”
Since January 20, 2017, the Republican Party has become defined by its unwillingness to confront—and, in many cases, its willingness to enable—an out-of-control president. Here was Haley, someone with a reputation for speaking candidly to Trump, someone who had the courage as governor to remove the Confederate flag from her state capitol, admitting that she hadn’t bothered to challenge him—even in private—on a deception that threatened the stability of American life. Why not?
“I understand the president. I understand that genuinely, to his core, he believes he was wronged,” Haley told me. “This is not him making it up.”
But Trump was making it up. To date, there had been no discovery of material voting fraud. The president’s legal team had lost 55 court cases and won just one. All 50 states had certified their results and sent a single slate of electors to the Electoral College. Despite all this—despite that politically, legally and constitutionally, it was game over—Trump was inciting threats against judges and elections officials and urging Americans to take matters into their own hands.
She countered that one case remained—a lawsuit brought by the Texas attorney general, endorsed by more than 100 Republican members of Congress, seeking to invalidate tens of millions of votes in battleground states—and it must be heard before Trump stands down. “This is coming to the end,” she said. “Up until now, he has not been able to prove it in court. So, if this continues to go down that path, Biden will be president. He knows that.”