Politics & Government

Former SC Gov. Nikki Haley resigns as Trump’s UN ambassador. What’s her next move?

Nikki Haley will leave her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations later this year, sparking intense speculation in South Carolina about the Bamberg native’s next move.

President Donald Trump accepted the former S.C. governor’s resignation Tuesday, after the two met last week at the White House. At a press conference, Trump said Haley indicated at least six months ago she was ready to take time off.

“It’s been eight years of intense time, and I’m a believer in term limits,” Haley said, citing key moments in her six years as S.C. governor and nearly two years as U.S. ambassador. “You have to be selfless enough to know when you step aside and let someone else do their job.”

Without being asked, Haley — wearing her signature necklace, featuring the S.C. state flag’s palmetto tree and crescent — quickly threw cold water on any speculation that she will challenge Trump in 2020.

Haley said she will support Trump’s re-election bid.

“Hopefully, you’ll come back at some point,” Trump said Tuesday, as Haley chuckled. Trump said Haley could have her pick of jobs in his administration.

Haley also brushed aside any speculation she would challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca in 2020.

Graham — a regular golfing partner and confidant of Trump’s — widely had been considered vulnerable to a primary challenger from the most conservative wing of the GOP. However, Graham appears to have all but erased conservatives concerns with his full-throated defense of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation battle. As a result, many S.C. Republicans never have been more enthusiastic about Graham.

Haley wouldn’t challenge Graham, a close ally, anyway, said Rob Godfrey, one of Haley’s senior advisers as governor.

“She has always appreciated Sen. Graham’s leadership,” Godfrey said. “She’s always worked very well with him, dating back to the earliest days of the governorship, and she’s also been pretty clear that she doesn’t have any interest in being a legislator again. So I think speculation that she is looking for a seat in the U.S. Senate is ill-informed.”

In Easley on Monday, Graham also said he has no plans to join Trump’s cabinet — creating a Senate vacancy that Haley could be appointed to — and will run for his Senate seat again in 2020.

Graham said Tuesday that Haley was a “clear, concise voice for American leadership, American values and has been a true agent of reform when it came to the United Nations.”

“Nikki Haley has a very bright future and will be a key player in both the future of the Republican Party and our nation as a whole for years to come,” he said.

In her Oct. 3 resignation letter to Trump, Haley wrote that — between being in the S.C. House, Governor’s Mansion and U.S. ambassador’s office — she has held public office for 14 straight years.

“As a businessman, I expect you will appreciate my sense that returning from government to the private sector is not a step down but a step up,” she wrote Trump.

GOP observers say joining the private sector now is a smart move for Haley, who, having spent most of her career in public office, has little money. Haley leaves her U.N. post with up to $1 million in debt, according to a 2017 financial disclosure.

“She’s now got global connections and could sit on any major board, multiple boards for multiple corporations, and make millions of dollars,” said Wesley Donehue, who runs the digital consulting agency Push Digital and has been a senior digital adviser for several S.C. Republicans’ campaigns. “If I were Haley’s adviser, I’d be telling her to stay in New York, make a few million dollars a year, then emerge on the political scene.”

Longtime GOP strategist Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist, agrees.

“My first thought when I heard the news: This is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for her financially,” he said. “She and Trey Gowdy have something in common, not because they are South Carolinians, (they) quit at the top of their game. No one can blame them.”

Filling out her resume, with a position in business, would be a good strategic move for Haley — the first woman and first person of color elected governor of South Carolina — if she wants to run for president someday, Woodard said, likening her decision to former President George H. W. Bush.

Bush “took lots of jobs,” Woodard said. “He was head of the National Republican Committee. He was (U.S. ambassador) in the United Nations, all before becoming vice president (to Ronald Reagan).”

Where Haley lands after December is unclear. Her daughter, Rena, is at Clemson University. Her son, Nalin, is in high school in New York.

More than one of Haley’s former advisers said Tuesday that they have no doubt she will land on her feet.

“She’s obviously got a very bright future ahead of her,” said Tedd Pitts, a Haley chief of staff during her first term as governor who now is head of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. “She deserves some time to figure that out. She’s been running full speed, 100 mph for years now. Nikki Haley can do anything she wants to do.”

Pitts, however, said he had no insight on where Haley will go next.

“Companies that do business in the United States, South Carolina and in the world would, obviously, be well served to have Nikki involved.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Avery Wilks: 803-771-8362, @AveryGWilks; Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter