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Nikki Haley’s Damning Defense of Trump

Ramesh Ponnuru

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, has made news twice during her book tour. She has said that Trump should not be impeached “for asking for a favor that didn’t happen” and for holding up aid that was eventually delivered to Ukraine. And she has said that former administration officials Rex Tillerson and John Kelly asked her to join them in resisting the president from within. She says she rejected the idea because it would have meant subverting the Constitution.

In both cases, Haley disappointed opponents of Trump who had hoped, or imagined, that she was one of them. Her remarks show that she has thrown in her lot with the president. But there is a tension between her comments, and it mirrors the tension of working in this administration.

On the one hand, Haley insists that it’s a constitutional duty for the president’s will to be followed. On the other hand, it’s a constitutional excuse for him that his will wasn’t followed. When Kelly, who served as chief of staff, and Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, second-guess the president, they are usurping power our Constitution gave him. But when the president issues a command, sometimes it’s really more of a suggestion.

Trump’s underlings have certainly been willing to treat his wishes as idle talk before, and sometimes even to defy him. Their insubordination has kept Trump out of trouble before, too. As the report from special prosecutor Robert Mueller detailed, former White House counsel Don McGahn refused to fire Mueller when Trump directed him to do so. If McGahn had obeyed, Trump would likely have faced an earlier and more bipartisan impeachment.

Was McGahn, by Haley’s standards, serving Trump or undermining him? What about the reports that Trump has sometimes urged aides to break laws and promised to pardon them afterward? The aides decided to treat those remarks as a “joke.” Assuming Haley believes these reports, were these aides, too, acting illegitimately?

One way of trying to get around this dilemma would be to assume that some presidential directives are serious and others are just venting or jesting. Haley has gestured toward this possibility, telling the Washington Post that “there was no heavy demand insisting that something had to happen” when Trump asked for a Ukrainian investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. As far as we can tell from what Haley has told us, though, Kelly and Tillerson may have had the same idea. Maybe they just wanted officials to err on the side of construing Trump’s orders as “light” demands.

Haley is right to be uncomfortable about presidential aides seeing themselves as checks on their boss. She’s right, too, that defiance raises a constitutional concern. Article II vests executive power in the president, not in his aides. The aides, who were not elected, have to be accountable to the president who was. It can’t be the other way around.

But this president has chosen, or defaulted to, a different mode of governance. He either tolerates a high degree of insubordination or has not figured out a way of squelching it. When his appointees anger him, he often vents about it on Twitter instead of firing them.

No wonder Haley’s remarks sound so dissonant. The president has created a working environment in which either following his orders or not following them is a threat to the proper functioning of the government. Even the most highly accomplished diplomat could not resolve this tension, which may help explain why Haley, like Tillerson and Kelly, is no longer in the Trump administration.

To contact the author of this story: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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