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Updated Jan 28, 2024, 4:08pm EST
politics

Nikki Haley crosses the Rubicon

Her defense of the jury in the E. Jean Carroll case goes to the core of Trump’s candidacy.

REUTERS/Randall Hill
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The News

Nikki Haley’s campaign against Donald Trump reached a new phase with five crucial words in her “Meet The Press” interview on Sunday: “I absolutely trust the jury.”

Haley’s active defense of the anonymous jurors that awarded E. Jean Carroll $83 million in damages after a previous jury found Trump was liable for sexual assault and defamation marked a point of no return. “I think that they made their decision based on the evidence,” she added, just to make her position crystal clear.

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Benjy’s view

What stands out about Haley’s remarks is not just that it’s a Republican taking on Trump over sexual misconduct, something that’s almost unheard of since he survived the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. It’s that a top rival is actually addressing the core argument of Trump’s candidacy: That he is the target of a vast conspiracy that stole the last election and is targeting him now in order to steal the next one.

These twin premises, which Trump has spent years working to build up and maintain, have made it virtually impossible to attack him. “Electability” is not an effective angle when losses are not considered legitimate. Attacks on Trump’s personal character, ethics, and competence are not effective angles when some malicious outside force — the “deep state,” “partisan prosecutors,” etc.— is to blame for his problems. To the extent his nomination looks inevitable, this is the reason.

Trump, who has actively leaned into his legal troubles on the campaign trail, knows that the only way to beat him is to undo this framework — and he knows how scared Republicans are to try it, given the backlash they typically face. Last week, he directly challenged Haley to take her best shot by posing a simple question: Why won’t the same thing happen to you?

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“Just a little note to Nikki, she’s not going to win,” Trump said after winning the New Hampshire primary. “But if she did, she would be under investigation by those people in 15 minutes, and I could tell you five reasons why already. Not big reasons, little stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about, that she will be under investigation within minutes, and so would Ron [DeSantis] have been, but he decided to get out.”

Beneath the Trumpian innuendo, there was a substantive point. Haley has warned over and over that “chaos follows” Trump. Even Ron DeSantis, in his spicier final days, complained the election was “going to be about January 6, legal issues, [and] criminal trials” if Trump were the nominee. But what neither of them did was articulate why “chaos follows” Trump and why he’s constantly beset by indictments and lawsuits. DeSantis even preemptively excused him from any upcoming convictions, arguing the jurors would be from “left-wing” cities.

That’s changing now. Haley’s remarks on Sunday fit into an emerging message that answers Trump’s New Hampshire riddle more directly and is already forcing a more pointed response.

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First, she’s saying more unambiguously that Trump is a loser, which is a relatively recent development. She launched her campaign around an aspiration to win the “popular vote” — a non-issue that sidestepped the topic of his state-based efforts to overturn the last election.

“With Donald Trump, Republicans have lost almost every competitive election,” she said in a Tuesday night speech in New Hampshire that enraged Trump. “We lost the Senate, we lost the House, we lost the White House. We lost in 2018. We lost in 2020, and we lost in 2022.”

Her attacks on his age, honesty, “unhinged” rants, and mental fitness all relate to this as well, because they offer an actual theory of why he loses: He’s a raging incompetent who upsets swing voters that Republicans need to win. The more she can bait him into making especially racist or nasty attacks, the easier it is to illustrate her point.

They also feed into the second, more potentially explosive, half of her argument that she brought up on Sunday: That Trump is primarily in legal trouble because of his own behavior — and it’s not the party’s job to bail him out as a result.

“I do think that he surrounds himself in chaos, and we can’t be a country in disarray, and have a world on fire and be in chaos,” she said on Sunday. “I do think that these court cases are distracting not just to the American people but to him himself, which is keeping him from talking about what really matters. That’s exactly why I don’t think he should be president.”

Haley is still a very long shot to win the nomination, and we’ll see how far she actually goes with all this — other candidates have dipped their toe into discussing the details of Trump’s indictments and civil trials only to soon back away. Haley herself said she hasn’t “paid attention” to the details of his cases in her MTP interview on Sunday. But Trump is not wrong to want her gone fast: Her portrait of him as a lying has-been who reaps what he sows not only goes to the foundations of his political strength, it’s 100% usable by Democrats in the general election.

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Notable

  • In Semafor, Shelby Talcott and David Weigel looked at Haley’s attacks on Trump’s age, which appear to be breaking through in a way that prior attacks (mostly by Democrats ) have not.
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