AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This morning began with a surprise resignation from the White House. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says she will step down by the end of the year. When she and President Trump spoke to reporters at the White House today, they took turns praising each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She's done an incredible job. She's a fantastic person, very importantly, but she also is somebody that gets it.
CHANG: And Haley tried, preemptively, to answer a question about her future.
NIKKI HALEY: For all of you that are going to ask about 2020, no. I am not running for 2020. I can promise you what I'll be doing is campaigning for this one. So I look forward to supporting the president in the next election.
CHANG: All right. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to talk about all of this. Hey, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So why now? Why is Haley stepping down now?
LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. We don't know exactly why now, but we do know that she wrote her resignation letter six days ago, which would have been just as President Trump was attacking Christine Blasey Ford. That might not have looked so good if she'd resigned then. She says she's term eliminating yourself. She's going to go into the private sector. We know that she and her husband are not wealthy people. They have a lot of debt, based on her financial disclosure form. So for someone who does want to run for president maybe sometime in the future - time to go make a lot of money - she is staying on till the end of the year. But it made sense for her to announce this now because in case the Republicans lose big in the midterms, she doesn't want to be seen as kind of a rat deserting the sinking ship.
CHANG: Right. Running for the hills.
CHANG: So the thing that's different about this departure compared to other exits we've seen from the Trump administration is that Haley seems to be leaving on good terms with President Trump. Is that actually the case?
LIASSON: Yes. It sounds like it's the case. She is the most adept political operator in the Cabinet. You know, she has been just an Acela ride away, but somehow being out of Washington has allowed her to carve out this independent political persona as a loyal Trump Cabinet member but not a sycophant. She's tougher on Russia than he is, although that's true of many members of his foreign policy team. But she has been able to separate herself from Trump when it suits her purposes. Remember when she said there would be sanctions on Russia then Larry Kudlow said, no, Nikki Haley is confused. And she retorted very firmly and said, I don't get confused.
CHANG: I don't get confused, yes.
LIASSON: She also wrote an op-ed piece saying on the one hand she wasn't anonymous - the internal anonymous resister - but also pointing out that she does from time to time differ with the president, but she brings those differences up privately. Now, some Republicans grumbled that was pretty self-aggrandizing, but once again she was able to burnish her own brand as someone independent, foreign policy hawk, but not a total Trumpist.
CHANG: She actually could kind of have it both ways. OK. So...
LIASSON: Yes. She's actually managed to have it both ways, which shows you that she is a really good politician.
CHANG: So as we heard Haley just say, she won't be running for president in 2020. But are we to assume that this is really the end of her political career?
LIASSON: We are certainly not, and nobody does. She's not going to challenge the president in a primary in 2020. She hasn't ruled out not running for president. A lot of people think she'll run in 2024, or possibly she'll take a Senate seat in South Carolina if one comes open. But her presidential ambitions are well-established, and it was really interesting. People who are following her career and speculating about its future paid careful attention to what she said about Ivanka and Jared today. She said that Jared was such a hidden genius that no one understands. Ivanka, of course, the president has talked about as a possible replacement for Nikki Haley. So she is staying on good terms with all the members of the Trump family.
CHANG: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.