By Anne Gearan and Sean Sullivan
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley departed sharply from President-elect Donald Trump on a range of foreign policy issues Wednesday, creating some awkwardness as she fielded questions from senators on Capitol Hill.
During her confirmation hearing to be the next United Nations ambassador, Haley voiced heavy skepticism about Russia and optimism about NATO, both deviations from some of Trump’s statements. She unequivocally shot down the idea of a Muslim registry or ban, which Trump has never fully disavowed.
Under questioning from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Haley appeared to struggle at times to balance distancing herself from some of Trump’s most controversial positions without appearing overly critical of her new boss.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put her on the spot, noting that on some issues Trump has outlined a world view that is “the exact opposite of what you are articulating it to be.”
Trump has already modified some positions and more changes are likely once Trump is in office, she said.
“Not all of it will change after Friday, but I will control the part of it I can,” at the United Nations, she said.
Wednesday’s hearing which came after a string of others in which Trump’s nominees were at odds with him over some of his signature stances, highlighted the potential for deep discord in the new administration.
For her part, Haley framed the disagreements as a positive development.
“That’s how an administration works, You surround yourself with people who don’t just say ‘yes’ to what you think,” she said.
Haley was supposed to be one of Trump’s least-contentious choices for a top government job despite little direct experience handling the global issues and negotiations she would face as the ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley entered her confirmation hearing with the likelihood of at least some Democratic support. But the stakes for Haley, a Republican rising star and one of the party’s few women of color in high office, rose after the problematic audition last week for the man who would be her boss — secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson.
She pledged to forcefully advance American interests at the U.N. after what she called a retreat from global leadership under the Obama administration.
Haley questioned the priorities and effectiveness of the world body, which Trump has called a toothless debating society, but said she intends to “fix” what doesn’t work.
“I have no problem calling people out,” Haley said.
The United Nations is “often at odds with American national interests and American taxpayers,” Haley said, adding that she would use the “leverage” of potential cuts in U.S. funding to demand reform.
She expressed skepticism about working with Russia.
“Russia is trying to show their muscle right now. It’s what they do,” Haley said. “I don’t think that we can trust them,” she added. “We have to continue to be very strong back and show them what this new administration is going to be.”
She said she agrees that Russia invaded and seized Ukrainian territory in 2014 and that U.S. and international sanctions were an appropriate response. She said she would consider additional sanctions, something Trump has suggested he may oppose.
Haley said she has not had a detailed conversation with Trump about the U.S. relationship with Russia.
Russia, like the United States, holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. and Russian ambassadors must work closely together, even if they rarely agree. Haley would probably work more directly with Russia than any other top U.S. official apart from the secretary of state.
She said she believed Russia’s bombing in Aleppo, Syria, constituted a war crime. Tillerson declined to call Russia President Vladimir Putin a war criminal during his hearing last week.
Haley harshly criticized the Obama administration for allowing the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israel and pledged never to let it happen again if confirmed as the next U.N. ambassador.
“I will not go to New York and abstain when the U.N. seeks to create an international environment that encourages boycotts of Israel,” Haley said.
“I will never abstain when the United Nations takes any action that comes in direct conflict with the interests and values of the United States.”
She also questioned the priorities of the United Nations in other areas and whether the United States is getting its money’s worth for its contribution and investment. Haley said she looks forward to representing the United States in the international forum, but her skepticism about the United Nations’ value echoes Trump’s and aides who have said the New York-based body is biased, bloated and ineffectual.
“We contribute 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget, far more than any other country. We are a generous nation,” Haley said. “But we must ask ourselves what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution. Are we getting what we pay for?”
Haley is best known nationally for her handling of the 2015 racially motivated killings of black worshipers at a historic Charleston church, for which she got generally high marks. She spoke at memorials and ordered the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol grounds.
In 2016 she was chosen to give the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address, and used the platform to indirectly criticize Trump. She backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the primaries, and her selection by Trump for a Cabinet-level job bucked a trend against welcoming former political foes.
Haley, who turns 45 on Inauguration Day, is the South Carolina-born daughter of Indian immigrant parents. She was a member of the state legislature before her election as the state’s first female and first minority governor.
Haley was mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick in 2016 and is seen as a potential future Republican presidential candidate. The U.N. job would add critical national security experience to her résumé and raise her national and international profile.
Tillerson angered Democrats and at least one influential Republican, Rubio, with fuzzy or equivocal answers. He ran into trouble when asked about his former employer, oil giant ExxonMobil, sanctions on Russia, climate change and some human rights issues. Tillerson won praise and criticism for refusing to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and disagreed with Trump on several issues, including blunt denunciation of Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
Tillerson’s nomination remains in limbo, with Rubio a potential spoiler. If approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, he could be approved by the full Senate as soon as Friday.
Haley would succeed U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, whose farewell address Tuesday was a prosecution of Putin’s Russia for what she called a systematic subversion of international rules, including an effort to “undercut the credibility of international institutions like the U.N.”
She blamed the Russian leader for the deaths of opposition figures and journalists in Russia and called the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea a “land grab.”
“I know some have said that this focus on Russia is simply the party that lost the recent presidential election being ‘sore losers,’ ” Power said. “But it should worry every American that a foreign government interfered in our democratic process. It’s not about the leader we chose — it’s about who gets to choose that leader. That privilege should belong only to Americans.”
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