Nikki Haley v Mike Pence: The making of a Battle Royale that wasn’t

Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. At a recent Republican retreat in Aspen, Colo, the two headliners did not bother to acknowledge each other in their presentations.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Nikki Haley, 47, the former South Carolina Republican Governor and erstwhile U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations — the only Indian American to serve in a cabinet level position to date — clearly has her sights set on the presidency in 2024. Apparently Vice President Mike Pence, who expects to run, is running scared as Haley has been dipping into his donor base and even has his former chief of staff Nick Ayers consulting for her.

But it was her seemingly out of the blue tweet on Aug. 21 expressing her support for Pence and squashing rumors that she would replace Pence as President Trump’s running mate in 2020 that had political observers and prognosticators scratching their heads. The White House, too, is miffed and administration officials are making clear that Trump had absolutely no intention of dumping Pence for Haley as had been rumored several months ago but had apparently put to rest.

In her tweet, Haley, who had previously stated that she would not challenge Trump in a primary in 2020 said, "Enough of the false rumors. Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support,” and included a picture of her and Pence at the United Nations.

What was seen as an unprompted tweet came just days after President Trump told reporters that he was "very happy" with Pence and went on to describe him as "outstanding VP."

Adding a hint of finality, Trump said “I'm very happy with Mike Pence.”

It was back in June when rumors were ripe that Haley could possibly replace Pence to help Trump with the suburban women who had voted for him in 2016 but may now be having second thoughts. In an interview with Fox Business Network, Trump quashed those rumors, saying, "I love Nikki. She's endorsed me. She's my friend. She's part of my campaign, but Mike has been a great vice president.”

Interestingly in October 2018, a poll had showed Haley as the strongest potential primary challenger for the incumbent president. However, the poll that showed that 52 percent of early primary state voters would consider picking Haley over Trump, had been paid for by the anti-Trump conservative nonprofit Defend Democracy Together.

So, when Haley’s seemingly random and mysterious tweet took on a life of its own, which the White House perceived as Haley attempting to insert herself into a nonexistent vacancy for vice president, slapped her down within minutes of her tweet.

The Washington Examiner, the conservative newspaper, which leans strongly in favor of Trump said that the White House had been irritated with Haley’s tweet and quoted one senior administration source saying that “the only person talking about Nikki Haley as Vice President is Nikki Haley.”

Haley’s tweet also inspired some Twitterati to make jokes using her phrase, “Enough of the false rumors,” with one Twitter user, saying, “Enough of the false rumors. Fredo has been a dear brother of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy underboss to the Godfather. He has my complete support.”

There were other tweets poking fun at Haley, saying, “ENOUGH of the false rumors that I definitely don’t want to talk about off-the-record and in great detail,” and another that said: “Enough of the false rumors. Julius Caesar has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy consul to the Roman Republic. He has my complete support.” 

“Brutus, Rome 44 BC.”

On Aug. 24, Politico cleared up the mystery of Haley’s impromptu tweet, in an article titled, ‘Haley-Pence rivalry heats up as GOP weighs post-Trump future,” and stated that in interviews with top Republicans had revealed that they were watching each other warily ahead of a potential 2024 showdown.

It said that “when top Republicans convened at the St. Regis resort in Aspen, Colo. last month for an exclusive donor retreat, several attendees said there was palpable tension in the room” as the gathering’s two headliners, Pence and Haley, prepared to speak.

Politico said that “the assembled group of governors, high-dollar donors, and operatives were well aware that the two have big ambitions; to some it seemed as if Pence and Haley, who spoke on back-to-back days, were vying for their attention … Neither Pence nor Haley acknowledged each other in their presentations, even though they gave shout-outs to others attending the retreat.”

The Politico report also noted that “tensions flared after Haley chose not to publicly repudiate a Wall Street Journal column in June urging Trump to put her on the ticket.”

Earlier last month, Haley took a swipe at Trump after his criticism of Baltimore and its black congressman, Elijah Cummings. “This is so unnecessary,” she wrote on Twitter, adding the eyeroll emoji.

White House counselor and former Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway fired back Tweeting, “THIS is so unnecessary. Trump-PENCE2020.”

But Politico said that “Pence’s inner circle is convinced Haley is laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid. Since departing the administration late last year, she's crisscrossed the country raising money for down-ballot candidates and conservative groups.”

Haley has also formed "Stand for America," a political advocacy organization that allows her to cultivate major donors and establish the kind of national fundraising network she would need to mount a national campaign, and among those working for the group is Mark Harris, an operative who worked on a pro-Marco Rubio super PAC during the 2016 presidential campaign.

And, according to Politico, “Some Haley skeptics said they’re watching to see whether she uses the organization to help candidates in next year’s races, or saves its resources for later.”

Apparently further complicating the dynamic between Pence and Haley was the role of Ayers, who remained close to both, and senior GOP leaders were wondering who the 37-year-old would ultimately work for.

Haley has been circumspect when asked if she’s running in 2024 and said she hasn’t thought about it, but her close friends and confidantes in South Carolina who have known her for decades and have been fundraisers for her campaign when she first ran for the state legislature and then for governor, have told India Abroad that she’s definitely running and they stand ready to help and support her in that quest.

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