Skip to main content

Trump picks former critic Nikki Haley for UN ambassador

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who was raised Sikh, spoke out forcefully against a mass shooting committed by white man
Haley criticised Trump during Republican primaries (Reuters)

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for ambassador to the United Nations, was relatively unknown on the national stage until a mass shooting in her state vaulted her to prominence.

The June 2015 massacre at a historic black church in Charleston laid bare some of the racial tensions that persist in South Carolina, which in 1860 became the first state to secede from the United States ahead of the Civil War.

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, spoke out forcefully against the shooting by a young white man and led efforts for the divisive Confederate flag to be pulled from the South Carolina state capitol.

The removal of the flag was seen by some as a watershed moment for race relations in the state.

If confirmed by the Senate, Haley, 44, would become one of only two women so far nominated for Trump's cabinet, alongside Republican megadonor Betsy DeVos who was picked Wednesday as education secretary.

Raised as a Sikh, Haley is also the first minority figure in Trump's list of otherwise white-only top administration officials. Haley now identifies as Christian.

Her appointment may go some way towards reassuring those alarmed by Trump's strident anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, as well as his pick of a top adviser, Steve Bannon, who is admired by white supremacists.

Haley was sharply critical of Trump during the election campaign and endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio during the Republican primary race before backing Senator Ted Cruz.

While campaigning against Trump in the primaries, she criticised him for his failure to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan immediately after he was endorsed by former KKK leader David Duke.

"I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we are," she declared.

Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa in 1972 in Bamberg, South Carolina, Haley served in the state's House of Representatives from 2005-2011.

After her election as governor, Haley stayed firmly on the right, displaying hostility to trade unions, taxes and gay marriage.

In January, the Republican Party picked Haley to present its response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, when she attacked him over the economy and his signature health care law.

In July, Haley asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.

"We are a compassionate state with a history of welcoming those in need, but the safety and security of South Carolinians is the governor’s highest priority," Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in a statement.

As a child, Haley helped in her parents' clothing shop and assisted with the bookkeeping. She went on to get a degree in accounting.

Popular among anti-tax "Tea Party" conservatives, Haley received an endorsement from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and won the South Carolina governorship in 2010.

She is currently the youngest governor in America and the second of Indian descent, after Louisiana's Bobby Jindal.

Haley said she had accepted Trump's offer and would remain governor pending her confirmation to the Cabinet-level post by the US Senate.

"When the president believes you have a major contribution to make to the welfare of our nation, and to our nation's standing in the world, that is a calling that is important to heed," she said in a statement.

Haley's job may include reassuring allies worried about some of Trump's campaign rhetoric, including his pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexican border to curb illegal immigration, his promise to review trade agreements and his suggestion that he would push NATO partners to pay more for their own defence.

Haley's prestigious posting at the United Nations is sure to draw ire from opponents, given that she has virtually zero foreign policy experience.

But she received congratulations from the UN ambassadors of close US allies Britain and Israel.

"She will bring to the UN a strong track record of achievement from South Carolina, and I know that the UK-US relationship will continue to go from strength to strength," British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters.

Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon hailed her as a "longstanding and true friend of Israel" who in South Carolina fought a pro-Palestinian movement that sought to target Israel with boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

In her response to Obama's last State of the Union Address in January, Haley voiced opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran. She said if Republicans were in control of the White House, they would "make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around".

If confirmed, Haley would replace Samantha Power, who has served as the US ambassador to the UN since 2013.

Haley is married to Michael Haley, an officer in the South Carolina National Guard and has two children.