Republished with permission from Lucian K. Truscott IV
I had about six titles for this column: will Nikki roll the dice? Will she take on Trump? Will she tell the truth about him? Will she go all-in against him in South Carolina?
Or will she do what all the Republican men did in 2016 and most have done this year and continue to repeat his lies in hopes they’ll get some crumb from the Trump table? You’ll notice how I characterized the rest of his opponents in that sentence: all the men. So, we should probably say right from the outset that save for Chris Christie, among Republicans, only a woman has had enough guts to stand up and say anything negative about Trump in the party’s primary so far.
Haley hasn’t had much to say about Trump that you would characterize as a real attack, but back to my choice of titles, going after him to any degree at all really is a gamble. It was his wife, Melania, who during the Republican primary in 2016 told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “As you may know by now, when you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.” I hardly think we need to bring up what Trump has done to E. Jean Carroll over the last few years, and it would take another column to list the Republicans he has defenestrated for crossing him in one way or another.
The Associated Press reported today that at two rallies in South Carolina over the weekend Haley called Trump “the other 80-year-old in the race” and accused him of being “embroiled in chaos and drama.” According to the AP, she did “slip in references to ‘four cases and … 91 charges,” and “mocked him for throwing ‘a temper tantrum’ because she has not yet dropped out.” That we’re quoting these kinds of little pitty-pat remarks by Haley shows how careful she is being as she tries to convince South Carolina voters who love Trump but only like her.
When on Sunday on Meet the Press Haley was asked by host Kristen Welker about the $83.3 million verdict against Trump in the E. Jean Carroll defamation case, Haley went further than any Republican has so far in skating on the thin ice between Donald Trump and the truth. With the rest of the Trumpian echo chamber attacking Carroll as a “tool” of the Democratic Party and a liar, Haley said, “I absolutely trust the jury, and I think that they made their decision based on the evidence.”
Let’s just take a moment to celebrate the first time a sentence that has anything to do with Donald Trump came out of the mouth of a Republican with the word “evidence” in it. That’s at least a step forward, and cable news pundits were all over the place yesterday speculating about the price Haley will pay for having said it.
It was when Welker pressed Haley on whether she thought the verdict against Trump was “disqualifying” that Haley fell back on what amounts to Republican boilerplate rhetoric about Trump’s legal woes: “We don’t need to take over anything that the American people have the right to do,” Haley answered. “I think the American people will take him off the ballot. I think that’s the best way to go forward is not let him play the victim. Let him play the loser.”
Whoa. The other person over the weekend to call Trump a “loser” was President Joe Biden.
But Haley went on to couch her remarks not in terms of fitness for office, but in terms of foreign policy: “Americans see that he’s completely distracted, they see that he’s going on these rants about how he’s the victim, and I think that’s exactly what we don’t need a strong leader to be. That’s not what you want a president to be, but more than that, that’s not what we want Russia to see, that’s not what we want China to see and that’s not what we want Iran to see.”
You will notice, I’m sure, that I’ve gotten this far in the column without quoting a single word from Haley about Trump’s continuing blatant lie that he won the 2020 election, and that everything he did after the November results came in were legitimate acts of a president trying to ensure the election was not “rigged.” An article on the Washington political website Semafor on Haley’s quote about the New York jury verdict against Trump was headlined, “Nikki Haley Crosses the Rubicon” and tried to make a case that what she said addresses “the core argument of Trump’s candidacy: That he is the target of a vast conspiracy that stole the last election and is targeting him now in order to steal the next one.”
Well, um, no, actually. What would address Trump’s lies about 2020 would be to call him a liar, to come right out and say he lost the election to be president, and that the charges he faces for his actions surrounding January 6 are legitimate, and if he is found guilty, the verdict will disqualify him from serving in office as president.
Nikki Haley is too busy at the moment tying her tap shoes and practicing her rhetorical steps around those issues to say anything that would draw a bright red line between her and Donald Trump. Doing so really is a delicate dance for Haley. I’m sure she has an entire team of advisers who probably meet daily to parse her numbers doing the thing that political pundits love to flap their lips about. Does she have a path?
If Haley suddenly comes to her senses and in addition to calling Trump a loser and a chaos monkey, she starts telling the truth that he lost the 2020 election and directly challenges him on his lies, she will doubtlessly lose South Carolina and every primary after that. But that’s probably going to happen anyway.
Her gamble is, if there’s a trial between now and November and Trump is found guilty, will that be enough to ensure his loss in the presidential election? And if that happens, where will she stand in the party for 2028?
She’s not the only one in the party making these calculations, but as the last candidate standing against Trump, she’s in a different, more dangerous, spot than the rest of them. She could come out as an early truth-teller about a man whose reputation will suffer harm beyond repair, or she could be blamed along with those evil Democrats for taking him down.
It really is a grenade, isn’t it? The biggest gamble of Nikki Haley’s life is whether being on the right side of history will mean anything after Donald Trump has left the Republican Party in ashes. Haley could be one of the leaders picking up the pieces and putting the party back together, or she could end up in pieces herself.
Less than a month until the South Carolina primary election. Haley has some serious decisions to make. Stay tuned.
Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better.