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Haley draws on her African visit when briefing Trump

When she sat down to brief President Donald Trump about her trip to Africa last week, Nikki Haley was carrying the voices of the women she met and the stories they shared as she argued for deeper US engagement in Africa.

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Elise Labott
Khalil Abdallah (CNN)
(CNN) — When she sat down to brief President Donald Trump about her trip to Africa last week, Nikki Haley was carrying the voices of the women she met and the stories they shared as she argued for deeper US engagement in Africa.

"I think it only makes me passionate. It only makes me more determined," Haley told a small group of reporters traveling with her. "The strength and inspiration that we get from women in these challenging conditions, that's why you fight."

During a week-long swing through Ethiopia, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, Haley got a first-hand look at two of the continent's most brutal conflicts and most dire humanitarian crises. More than 4 million people each in South Sudan and Congo have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence.

As the US ambassador to the United Nations, Haley has earned a reputation for blunt, tough talk, but her meetings with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Congolese President Joseph Kabila marked her first serious foray into high-stakes diplomacy with world leaders.

Haley brought reporters traveling with her to witness the top of each of her meetings, even refusing to join Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn until his security let American reporters in.

While she visited refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, Haley acknowledged she was unprepared for the level of suffering she witnessed in Africa.

At a refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella region, she took off her shoes to play with South Sudanese children, gave polio drops to infants and joined a dance circle. She was overwhelmed during a meeting with women who told her horrifying tales of sexual violence, early marriage and watching their babies being thrown in the fire by the enemy.

"My heart is heavy," she told a small group of reporters traveling with her while still in the camp. "No human being should live the way these people these people have lived, should have the memories that these people have and should feel the pain that they have felt. It's just inconceivable."

It was that raw emotion that she took to South Sudan, which the US helped gain independence before it descended into civil war two years later.

Haley showed President Kiir pictures of the misery she saw a day earlier.

"I told him that he couldn't deny the stories of his military, whether it was with violence or with rape or child soldiers and he can tell us all the words he wanted to say but his words don't match his actions," she recounted after the meeting. "I told him that we need to see him right the ship and if he wants to he can."

At a camp for displaced Congolese in the country's war-torn Kitchanga region, Haley held a single mother of seven while she broke down speaking of being raped in front of her children. She also visited a bakery started in the camp by a group of women, who found it too unsafe to leave the camp to buy bread. Having made a small profit, the women started a collective and told Haley they want to expand their business.

With the two biggest and most expensive UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Congo, Haley said on the eve of her trip she wanted to get a first-hand look at their effectiveness.

But in proposing the trip to Trump, Haley acknowledged her larger goal was to bring high-level attention to the African conflicts, which she warned that, left unresolved, could metastasize into the next haven for terrorists plotting attacks against the United States. Her mission became all the more urgent in the wake of last month's ISIS ambush in Niger which killed four US servicemen.

"We have to deal with the situation here on the ground so that we are not dealing with it in the United States," she told CNN in an interview. "What you have to look is these African countries and all countries, if they take care of their people, if they respect the voices of their people then you get true democracy. If they don't listen to the voices of their people, conflict will erupt. Extremism will happen, and the United States will have to deal with it. This is all about making sure we don't get to that place."

In a 90-minute, one-on-one meeting, she urged Kabila, the Congolese president, to move toward elections -- warning him that his refusal to step aside is contributing to the violence and instability in the country.

Aides said they were surprised by her toughness going head-to-head with the African strongmen, but Haley said her previous life as a politician in South Carolina helped guide her.

"It helps me relate to them because the one thing that they can't deny is that they are politicians," she told CNN. "I know what being a politician is like, and I know what they're capable of and what they're not capable of. And so, when they start to talk about what they don't control I remind them that they do."

Haley seemed to have found a connection with Kiir, in Juba saying that he "responded accordingly with a lot of insight, depth, emotion and will on how he wants to go forward."

Though the South Sudanese leader has broken repeated promises to the international community, Haley said their one-on-one meeting was an "intense back and forth that was meaningful to both of us in the hope of making a better South Sudan."

Ten months into the job, Haley says it is challenging but finds the work rewarding and appreciates the flexibility given to her by the President, a condition she secured when she took the job. She said she doesn't "go over the reservation," but is also not tethered to talking points.

"If I just went out there and read a statement it's not going to do anything," she said. "I can think for myself, I can do for myself. I am very aware of who I work for and very aware of the national security team and I'm very aware of doing everything in the best interests of the United States and for peace and security around the world and I'm very careful with how I use that flexibility."

As a member of the National Security Council, Haley says she wants to help shape Trump's policies. She read out her trip to Trump, and National Security Adviser HR McMaster Tuesday and expects to meet with Vice President Pence next week, her office said. While in Africa, she said she planned to lay out the options and make recommendations only if asked. But she said her previous interactions with the President suggest he will be open to her opinion.

"He makes the decision. But he really does listen," she said. Despite the perception of Trump as being closed-minded, Haley said her boss is "very thoughtful and he knows a lot and when you put it in front of him and you give him a different side than what he's thinking, he really opens himself up to it."

Haley also planned to discuss her trip with members of Congress and her colleagues on the security council. She was less enthusiastic about discussing her trip with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who she noted had been on travel. She said she would send a readout if it wasn't possible to meet.

When asked about her interactions with Tillerson, Haley said "I see him at meetings, just like I see everyone else." She added that the whole national security team works together towards a common goal.

Despite taking on more high-profile diplomatic assignments, Haley once again deflected speculation she could replace Tillerson if he were to leave early, saying she was happy in New York.

"I get to serve the country I love without dealing with a whole lot of drama."

What remains to be seen is whether Haley can help turn the groundwork she laid last week into policy. US officials acknowledge the Trump administration has been slow to communicate a vision for Africa. Tillerson has yet to hire an Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and the White House only brought in a senior Africa director two months ago.

In keeping with his America First foreign policy that limits US engagement abroad, Trump has also promised to cut foreign aid, and slashed assistance for Africa in his first budget. When asked whether she would press for more assistance after her trip, Haley said foreign aid is "the heart and soul of the American people."

"We've never could turn our backs while people are suffering," she said. "We are always going to fight for people who can't fight for themselves. That's in the American DNA."

Her noted that her strongest argument for deeper US engagement may lay with the children she encountered growing up in refugee and displacement camps. Haley said many of those she spoke with were unsure of how old they even were.

"Those kids will be 18 one day," Haley said of the children being affected by the conflicts. "They will be an uneducated adult with no social skills that will have resented the fact that they were put in that situation and that's dangerous for the United States and that's dangerous for the world."

Though they likely didn't know exactly who Haley was, the dozens of Congolese children at the Mungote camp knew she was important enough to run after her and wave as she left. Haley waved enthusiastically back as she boarded her UN helicopter back to base.

Once the helicopter took off, she put her head in her hands and cried.

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