NEW YORK — Nikki Haley became a trusted member of Donald Trump's inner circle over the past year, but she's recently refamiliarized herself with a downside of professional success: rumors of an affair, this time with the president of the United States.
Trump's ambassador to the United Nations calls the chatter "highly offensive" and "disgusting," the result of what happens far too often to strong women.
The online speculation was instigated by "Fire and Fury" author Michael Wolff, who dropped hints on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" last week when he said he was "absolutely sure" Trump is having an affair — just not sure enough to write about it in his book. Wolff went on to say that discriminating readers would be able to determine the president's paramour by giving his book a close reading: "Now that I've told you, when you hit that paragraph, you're gonna say, 'Bingo.'"
Readers quickly homed in on a single sentence in the runaway best-seller, which has been criticized for everything from sloppy copy editing to gross factual inaccuracies. Wolff writes, "The president had been spending a notable amount of private time with Haley on Air Force One and was seen to be grooming her for a national political future."
"It is absolutely not true," Haley said, arguing that Wolff not only has his facts wrong, but that his insinuation is similar to other attacks that she and other successful women have faced when they've been forced to swat down suggestions they've slept their way to the top.
"I have literally been on Air Force One once and there were several people in the room when I was there," she said in an interview Thursday for POLITICO's Women Rule podcast, referring to a flight from Washington to Long Island in late July. "He says that I've been talking a lot with the president in the Oval about my political future. I've never talked once to the president about my future and I am never alone with him."
"So the idea that these things come out, that's a problem," she said. "But it goes to a bigger issue that we need to always be conscious of: At every point in my life, I've noticed that if you speak your mind and you're strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that and the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows, lies or not." Wolff did not respond to a request for comment.
During a 40-minute conversation at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Manhattan, Haley not only swatted down Wolff's allegations, but also discussed how the daughter of Indian immigrants raised in small-town Bamburg, South Carolina, got into American politics, wending her way from the Statehouse to the governorship of the Palmetto State and now, to Turtle Bay, where she represents a president she spoke out against during the Republican primary.
Haley, during the campaign, said she was "not a fan" of Trump, who in turn told his Twitter followers, "The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!"
When she joined the Trump administration, Haley was already considered a rising star in the GOP — a young and compelling red-state governor. But Trump's unexpected rise seemed to serve as a rebuke to the Republican Party Haley represented — a more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming coalition. Tapped to deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address, she warned her fellow party against following "the siren call of the angriest voices" — a not-so-subtle jab at Trump.
But the real estate mogul went on to win the South Carolina primary, besting Haley's preferred candidate, Marco Rubio by 10 points.
And then Trump asked Haley to join his administration. Having risen from a state Legislature, she had little preparation for the job.
"This has felt like a big crash course, but I love it," she said. "I am a fast learner and especially when it's something I love, I soak it all in."
Haley said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — with whom she shares monthly lunches — has had the biggest influence on her worldview. "Whether it's politics or whether it's foreign policy, you tend to pass judgment, whether you should or not, on what you think is right or wrong."
"And what Dr. Kissinger has taught me is, get into the shoes of the other person: Think like the Russians, see what the motivations of the Russians are, then decide how you're gonna act. Think like the Chinese, what are the Chinese worried about? Why would they be making that decision? And when you start to make decisions based on what they're thinking, then you all of a sudden have a conversation that they can relate to."
The former governor distinguished herself early in the administration for her outspoken style and a willingness to clash publicly with the president. On Russia, for example, she has been far more confrontational than Trump, saying that "when a country can come interfere in another country's elections, that is warfare."
Asked about the women who have accused the president of sexual harassment, she told CBS News last month, "women should always feel comfortable coming forward and we should all be willing to listen to them."
Haley maintains she has suffered little blowback for these comments and said that, after her CBS appearance, the president called her and "said I did a good job."
It's that sort of fearlessness, in Haley's telling, that has made her subject to a slew of salacious rumors intended to ruin her career. She was plagued by accusations of an extramarital relationship during her campaign for South Carolina governor and in her early governorship, something she dismisses as the product of resentment from a small minority of men who have it out for strong women.
"I saw this as a legislator. I saw this when I was governor. I see it now. I see them do it to other women," she said. "And the thing is, when women work, they prioritize, they focus, and they believe if you're gonna to something, do it right."
"Others see that as either too ambitious or stepping out of line. And the truth is, we need to continue to do our job and if that means they consider it stepping out of line, fine. And if that means they're gonna throw stones, people see lies for what it is. Do I like it? No. Is it right? No. Is it gonna slow me down? Not at all. Every time this has happened, it only makes me fight harder. And I do it for the sake of other women that are behind me because they should never think that they have to put their head down and cower out of fear that somebody's gonna do something to you."
In the administration, Haley has often had to act as an unorthodox diplomat, serving in the traditional role of U.N. ambassador, but also massaging the message of an undiplomatic U.S. president to allies and adversaries alike.
Earlier Thursday, Trump had delivered remarks during a joint appearance at Davos with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu suggesting "Jerusalem" — what many took to mean the geographical contours of the city rather than the location of the U.S. Embassy — could not be a subject of negotiation in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don't have to talk about it anymore," Trump said.
Haley told the U.N. Security Council the same day that the U.S., in moving its embassy, had done "nothing" to prejudge the final borders of the city, and told POLITICO that the president was referring not to the geographical contours of Jerusalem but to the location of the embassy, though its location has never been the subject of negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Haley insisted her position was consistent with the president's. "We took it off the table because we didn't want it to be the one point they kept holding on it, because they were pulling us on both sides," she said. "What we're saying is, both of you need to come to the table, both of you need to talk past Jerusalem and an embassy and you need to start talking about how Palestinians and Israelis are going to live together… but basically, that's what he was saying, is don't use the United States as a tug of war because we're not going to allow that to happen, so we took Jerusalem off the table."
Consider it an exercise in diplomacy, Trump style — something at which Haley has become an expert over the past year.
"I agree with most everything he's done policy wise … I just have one way of dealing with it and he has another, but we get along great and I agree with most everything that he's done," she said.