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Haley's retort shows why she's unique in Trump's White House

Public humiliation is a rite of passage for many top officials in the Trump administration. But when it was Nikki Haley's turn this week, she fought back, defending herself in a way that reflects her unique status in the Trump administration.

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Jeremy Diamond (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Public humiliation is a rite of passage for many top officials in the Trump administration. But when it was Nikki Haley's turn this week, she fought back, defending herself in a way that reflects her unique status in the Trump administration.

The US ambassador to the United Nations spent much of Tuesday feeling both embarrassed that she had caused controversy by getting ahead of the White House in announcing Russia sanctions and irked by seemingly dismissive and condescending remarks from a fellow administration official, according to two sources close to Haley. Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump's newly installed chief economic adviser, said "there might have been some momentary confusion" on her part. Haley found the remark disrespectful and felt she couldn't keep quiet, the sources said.

"With all due respect, I don't get confused," Haley said in a statement.

It was a stunning retort in an administration where the typical response to being put down is to slink away quietly and regroup. That was the playbook for former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was ridiculed on Twitter by President Donald Trump for getting too far ahead on diplomacy with North Korea. Similarly, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is now White House chief of staff, ran afoul of Trump when he insisted the administration's travel ban was really a "travel pause," only to watch the President call it a ban.

Haley didn't endure a presidential putdown, but Kudlow's comments -- for which he later apologized -- were in line with an apparent White House strategy to shift blame to Haley and shield the President. Still, none of her colleagues have so publicly bristled at the egg on their faces.

Navigating shifting dynamics

For now at least, she is showing off her savvy in navigating the administration's ever shifting dynamics. She appears to have emerged from the combative approach unscathed -- a rare feat in Trump's orbit.

"It's clear that in situations like this she is prepared to defend herself -- and publicly, if necessary," said John Negroponte, a former US ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

Another source close to Haley said the ambassador "isn't going to let the President run over her like some of these star-struck men around the White House let him do."

Haley, a former South Carolina governor who endorsed a Trump rival during her state's high profile presidential primary, is one of the administration's most prominent voices. That's in part because of her penchant for speaking her mind, even when her views cause heartburn in the White House.

She insisted she would speak her mind when she joined the Trump's administration. Before agreeing to accept a nomination as UN ambassador, Haley listed off a few conditions during a conversation with Trump.

"I said, 'I don't want to be a wallflower or a talking head. I want to be able to speak my mind.' (Trump) said, 'That is why I asked you to do this,'" Haley told CNN last summer.

And since that conversation, Haley has spoken her mind -- staking out tough positions on everything from racism in the US to policy regarding Russia, Syria and Iran, often teetering on the edge of the administration's position and her own. But she had also always been cautious to avoid contradicting Trump, frequently touching base with him directly to coordinate her public messaging and remaining in his good graces.

Policy shift wasn't communicated

The reasons why Haley refused to take the heat for Sunday's miscommunication became clearer on Tuesday and Wednesday, with three administration officials telling CNN that Trump changed his mind on imposing additional sanctions on Russia. That policy shift wasn't communicated to Haley before her appearance on Sunday talk shows where she said new sanctions were on the way, the officials said.

Sanctions would typically be announced by the Treasury secretary or the White House. The communications breakdown in this instance underscores the administration's frequent difficulty in coordinating a coherent policy message.

The White House did not return requests for comment on the matter.

Already, some of Haley's political opponents have used her rebuke of the administration's efforts to blame her for the sanctions misstep to take shots at her.

The audacious move -- coupled with a recent effort for her and Vice President Mike Pence to share a political aide -- again drew attention to her lofty political ambitions, with whispers of her close political alliance with Pence and a potential 2020 ticket growing louder. Sources close to Haley quickly slapped down the notion that she and Pence were considering a joint ticket.

Andre Bauer, a former lieutenant governor of South Carolina who lost the 2010 race for governor to Haley, took to CNN on Wednesday to blast Haley for her misstep and call attention to her past opposition to Trump.

"She could've easily just let it go, but instead she fired back," Bauer, a CNN political commentator, said. "She took the shot because she's not a team player. She from the beginning was a 'Never Trumper' even after he won the nomination."

Beyond his initial aggravation at the public dissonance that Haley's remarks on Sunday invited, there was no indication Wednesday that Trump had soured on Haley. As of last summer, Haley told CNN Trump had "never once" called to say she had overstepped.

"I don't go rogue on the President," Haley said then. "I'm a strong voice by nature. He's aware of what I'm doing and he's very supportive."

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