At a midday meeting in the Oval Office in late July, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley came to President Donald Trump with an offer.
Trump had grudgingly declared Tehran in compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal earlier in the month, at the urging of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump hated the deal. But the two men pushed him to certify it, arguing in part that he lacked a strong case for declaring Iran in violation. A refusal to do so would have looked rash, they said, convincing Trump to sign off for another 90 days.
Haley, in that July meeting, which also included national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence, asked the president to let her make the case for decertification.
“Let me lay a foundation for it,” she said, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. The president agreed.
Haley would become the administration’s most vocal public proponent of decertification — and Trump’s favorite internal voice on Iran — further boosting her standing with the president at a time when she is seen as a potential successor to Tillerson, whose tense relationship with Trump has burst into the open in recent days.
A month after her talk with Trump, Haley flew to Vienna to visit the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Association, where she pressed officials about Iranian compliance with the deal. Soon after, she delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., airing her “doubts and concerns” about the agreement.
Haley’s role was described by a half-dozen administration officials who took part in the Iran policy review. While many of the president’s Cabinet members, aides and advisers work to restrain his impulses, when it came to the Iran deal Haley did the opposite — channeling what many Democrats and even some Republicans consider the president’s destructive instincts into policy.
Haley wasn’t alone. The fingerprints of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, whose access to Trump was recently limited by chief of staff John Kelly, were also on Trump’s Friday address in the form of a warning that Trump, who opted not to push for steps that could undo the nuclear agreement, could still cancel the deal “at any time.”
The line was added to Trump’s speech after Bolton, despite Kelly’s recent edict, reached the president by phone on Thursday afternoon from Las Vegas, where Bolton was visiting with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Bolton urged Trump to include a line in his remarks noting that he reserved the right to scrap the agreement entirely, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
Trump wound up saying that the agreement “is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time.” Bolton declined to comment on any conversation with the president.
Within the administration, Haley worked to chart a middle path by which Trump would decertify the deal while working with Congress in hope of strengthening it by adding new conditions on Iranian behavior to avoid a new round of U.S. sanctions.
In internal debates, where most members of the president’s Cabinet initially opposed decertification, Haley played a similar role: She was “the most engaged and most vocal” Cabinet member who favored decertification, according to a senior White House aide.
At times, that put her at odds with other Cabinet members, especially Tillerson, who vocally opposed her trip to Vienna in August — a matter that became another flashpoint in the ongoing feud between the two.
One White House official described the escalating tensions between Tillerson and Haley as reaching “World War III” proportions.
A spokesman for Haley declined to comment on her relationship with Tillerson or on her role in the broader Iran debate.
Tillerson had sent a top State Department deputy to a July meeting of the seven nations that are parties to the 2015 Iran deal and argued there was no need for Haley to meet with the IAEA a month later. But Trump greenlighted Haley to make the trip, according to two administration officials. Her presence sparked headlines about administration concerns with the deal. Brian Hook, the director of policy planning, ultimately joined Haley in Vienna.
State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond denied any dispute between Tillerson and Haley over the Vienna trip, describing it as a “very useful” visit for Hook and Haley.
White House officials describe the tension between the two senior diplomats as one fueled as much by style as by ideology. “You have two big personalities, one person who doesn’t want to be managed and doesn’t think she reports to the other,” one White House official said of Haley, “and the other who is used to being in charge and doesn’t like to be contradicted.”
But differing views on Iran heightened the friction. Tillerson was among the strongest opponents of striking a blow at the nuclear deal, as Trump did Friday when he declared Iran in violation of “the spirit of” the deal.
The Iran debate also afforded Haley another chance to upstage Tillerson, who though more senior has maintained a lower public profile than most of his predecessors.
Two weeks after her return from Vienna, in remarks at AEI, Haley floated what one NSC official described as the “initial trial balloon” for the path the administration laid out on Friday. “The purpose of the AEI speech was to figure out, ‘Is this gonna work? Does this thread that needle?’” the official said, describing a strategy by which the president would decertify the deal but remain a party to it.
In that speech, Haley differentiated between the nuclear agreement itself and the legally mandated congressional certification. “That’s a very important distinction to keep in mind, because many people confuse the requirements of the deal with the requirements of U.S. law,” she said.
“The truth is, the Iran deal has so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it. But, the deal was constructed in a way that makes leaving it less attractive,” she said. “It gave Iran what it wanted upfront, in exchange for temporary promises to deliver what we want.”
Even if the outcome wasn’t all he wanted, Bolton, one of Trump’s most hawkish outside allies, expressed satisfaction.
“The Iran deal may not have died today, but it will die shortly,” Bolton said.
The former U.N. ambassador supports a full U.S. withdrawal from the deal, something he told Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, during a meeting earlier this week.
At the behest of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, Bolton had prepared a plan for that approach that he never had the chance to present to Trump once Bannon was fired and Kelly cracked down on Oval Office visits.
But Bolton’s authorship of a key line in Trump’s speech makes clear that his influence at the White House endures.
Haley never explicitly called for withdrawal. But she was alone among top Trump officials to publicly call for Trump to declare Iran in violation of the deal. Even as most Cabinet officials — with the exception of CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Pence — privately cautioned Trump against upending it, Haley hammered the deal in multiple public remarks.
But after Trump seethed in July about certifying Iran’s compliance, a decision he is required by law to make every 90 days, few others voiced their concerns in his presence, a White House official noted.
After Trump announced at the U.N. General Assembly in September that he’d already decided how he would handle the next certification deadline of Oct. 15, and called the deal “an embarrassment to the United States,” his advisers realized that Friday’s announcement was inevitable.
Over the past several weeks, Trump’s national security advisers developed the strategy announced Friday — one that the State Department as well as the Department of Defense and the CIA ultimately signed off on. “The principles presented a consensus recommendation to the president,” said National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton.
But it was a consensus to which many were ultimately brought around — and that had been pushed, prodded and promoted by Haley for three months.
“If Rex is America’s quiet diplomat, Nikki is America’s foreign policy articulator,” Hammond said.