Donald Trump’s top diplomat at the United Nations faced a hostile reaction — including booing, hoots of derision and heckling calls for her to get off the stage — at the 2017 Women in the World Summit on Wednesday night, despite her tough talk on Russia covering for Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad was accused of another chemical weapons mass attack on civilians including children.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley faced the angry crowd after spending the day at the United Nations Security Council, where she seemingly diverged from her boss’s playbook on Syria, showing graphic photographs of children gassed in an attack that killed up to 100 in Idlib province, and overtly criticizing Moscow for backing Damascus.
Haley received good reviews for her stern words at the U.N., even from some of her Democratic opponents, having suggested the U.S. may even “take [its] own action” against Assad — even if Russia and China kept exercising their veto. It was a theme she doubled down on in a frank discussion of her new life as Washington’s woman at the U.N., with MSNBC For the Record anchor Greta Van Susteren.
Still the audience was not happy with the Trump appointee.
“What about refugees?” one angry audience member yelled, while another called out “Move on to the next panel!” as Haley tried to steer an independent course — condemning Moscow’s complicity in Assad’s attacks on his own people, but all the while defending President Trump who is remaining obstinately silent on the Putin regime’s involvement.
Van Susteren prompted one of the loudest cheers of the night when she asked Haley why President Trump had been critical of Assad and of President Barack Obama, saying that he didn’t act enough on Syria in 2012 and 2103, “but we have not heard much from him about Russia.”
“What do you think we should do about Russia? In your last response you put the target on Russia,” Van Susteren asked.
“Keep in mind that I work for the Trump administration,” Haley said diplomatically, prompting another chorus of boos, and Van Susteren’s interjection to the audience to “hold on — we got to get people to fix these problems.”
“I have hit Russia over the head more times than I count,” Haley insisted, sounding a bit like a school principal chiding errant students. “And if they do something wrong we’re going to call them out on it. And it they want to help us to beat terrorism fine. But the things they’ve done in Crimea and Ukraine and the things they’ve done, like covering up for Assad — we’re not going to give them a pass on it.”
The crowd’s evident displeasure with Haley, who dismissed decades of U.S. diplomatic tradition with the throw-away line “Greta, we don’t do soft power,” prompted Women in the World CEO Tina Brown in her closing remarks to say she wanted to “commend Nikki Haley for coming.” “I know there was a boisterous reception to her,” Brown said. “We often sneer and say Republicans don’t want to come … but Ambassador Haley didn’t put on any preconditions and she came and joined us at Women in the World and she sat there very graciously. She’s in the middle of a lot of world crises, so I think we should applaud the fact that she did come.”
Seemingly unfazed by her mixed reception, Haley powered on through her interview, despite the occasional jeers. Detractors saw a bizarrely optimistic desire on the part of the freshly-minted diplomat to look on the bright side of the deadly serious battle over war crimes at the Security Council (“France has been great, they’re all great,” she said of the Council’s disputes. “Everybody really does like each other at the end of the day.”)
“I’ve had conversations with the President where he very much sees Russia as a problem,” said Haley, despite multiple investigations of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Moscow leading up to the presidential election. “And I think if you look at his actions … the two things Russia doesn’t want to see the U.S. do is strengthen our military and expand energy, and the president has done both of those.”
Pressing Haley on how she intended to concretely deal with Russia when it blamed chemical weapons attacks on rebel groups in Syria rather than “their pals in Damascus,” Van Susteren elicited some unexpected responses.
“We called them out on it. They said it was this big container of chemical weapons that ISIS had and there’s not a picture there’s not an ounce of proof. They just make things up,” Haley said to widespread laughter from a largely Trump-skeptic audience.
“Syria was there at the Security Council and of course they throw their hands up and say ‘It wasn’t us, it wasn’t us.’”
And Russia, Haley explained, when confronted with independent investigations and reports showing chemical attacks came from the Syrian government, also was changing tack, saying “all of a sudden” that it didn’t believe the reports.
“If you say what they want hear they like it — if you tell them the truth they don’t want to hear it,” she added.
Calling for stronger U.S. leadership at the U.N. and in the context of rising threats from North Korea, Syria, Iran and Russia, Haley nonetheless insisted the U.N. was getting “stale” and had a problem with Israel-bashing.
The caustic reactions didn’t end after the U.S. Permanent Representative left the stage.
In the following panel on “Alternative Facts: Journalists under Siege,” moderated by New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick and featuring New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, Turkish author Ece Temelkuran, Indian TV journalist Barkha Dutt and Russian journalist Masha Gessen, Haley was the target of criticism.
Gessen said Haley’s intervention reminded her that the senior people around Trump including the U.N. diplomat, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were not up to their jobs. “They’re incompetent. None of them is qualified to be in the position they are in.”
Barkha Dutt commented that as Haley was speaking she said to herself “Dear God, please say something intelligent.”
It was, however, hard to doubt Haley’s sincerity as she praised the courage of medics working in Syria despite the grave dangers posed by attacks on health facilities, including after this week’s use of nerve gas.
“As if the [Idlib] chemical weapon attack wasn’t enough, to think that all these people went to the hospital to get care and you had doctors and nurses and people working on them — and then a bomb hits right there in the hospital. So these people died saving lives of others.
“It’s just a heartbreaking situation. What those doctors do is beyond courage. It is truly a thankless job but it’s one I’m so thankful that they do.”
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.