Media deem Trump the nominee, despite Haley tying him to Putin

Nikki Haley is campaigning hard, making the television rounds and ramping up her rhetoric against Donald Trump.

She is fighting on her home turf – South Carolina, the state that knows her best – and yet the media are acting in many ways as if the campaign is over.

That’s largely because the state’s former governor trails Trump by 22 to 36 percentage points, according to the last several South Carolina polls.


Haley is not only way behind Trump, she’s not closing the gap in a way that makes it a competitive contest on Saturday.

And if she loses by more than 20, the pundits will view that as the final nail in her political coffin.

Beyond that, I can’t think of a single state that Haley can win outright. She says she’ll continue at least through Super Tuesday, but the former president may have mathematically clinched the nomination by then, or shortly afterward.

This is not a knock on Haley (though contemporaries say she burned some bridges in South Carolina). The former U.N. ambassador managed to be the last woman standing, well after Pence, DeSantis, Scott, Christie and the others dropped out. But it’s instructive to look at how she’s campaigning, and why Trump – despite his four indictments and $355 million civil fraud penalty – seems unstoppable.

In a Sunday interview on ABC’s "This Week," Haley increasingly tried to tie Trump to Vladimir Putin’s murderous tactics in the wake of the Arctic prison killing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny:

"When you hear Donald Trump say in South Carolina a week ago that he would encourage Putin to invade our allies if they weren’t pulling their weight, that’s bone-chilling, because all he did in that one moment was empower Putin. And all he did in that moment was, he sided with a guy that kills his political opponents, he sided with a thug that arrests American journalists and holds them hostage, and he sided with a guy who wanted to make a point to the Russian people, don’t challenge me in the next election or this will happen to you too."


What’s more, Haley told Jonathan Karl, "it’s actually pretty amazing that he – not only after making those comments that he would encourage Putin to invade NATO, but the fact that he won’t acknowledge anything with Navalny. Either he sides with Putin and thinks it’s cool that Putin killed one of his political opponents, or he just doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal." 

Trump had said he wouldn’t protect any NATO country that didn’t spend 2% of its funds on defense, and in that case he would encourage Putin and Russia to "do whatever they hell they wanted." He has made no mention of Navalny’s death, which President Biden quickly blamed on Putin.

Haley reminded viewers that if Ukraine falls, Poland or the Baltics could be next.

Now think about this. If a candidate not named Trump had made comments interpreted as potentially blowing up the Atlantic alliance – drawing condemnation from top European leaders – and stayed silent when Russia’s dictator had the opposition leader killed, after a previous poisoning attempt, wouldn’t there be a political uproar?

But since it is Trump, who as president had a friendly relationship with Putin, there has been scant criticism from Republicans. If Trump believes it, most of the party falls into line.

It harkens back to his old 2016 line about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Just as the Senate seemed on the verge of passing a bipartisan border bill that included aid to Ukraine and Israel, Trump torpedoed the measure by coming out against it.


And in a FOX town hall Sunday night, Haley, who often says her ex-boss was a good president at the time, offered a more negative assessment:

"There were things that he did wrong," Haley told John Roberts. "His press conference in Helsinki, when he went and was trying to buddy up with Putin, I called him out for that. I explained that deeply in my book…how he was completely wrong. Because every time he was in the same room with him, he got weak in the knees. We can't have a president that gets weak in the knees with Putin."

About 20 minutes after Haley used the "weak in the knees" line yesterday on "Fox & Friends," saying Trump has "yet to say anything about Navalny’s death," the ex-president responded on Truth Social: 

"The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction." You might have noticed the pivot, and the failure to mention Putin at all. 

All this, in a nutshell, is why the press are far more interested in the veepstakes chatter surrounding Trump than in Haley’s dogged campaigning.

What most of the media and other critics fail to understand is that Trump represents the majority of his party. He has remade the GOP in his own image. Most leaders, with the notable exception of the strongly pro-Ukraine Mitch McConnell, follow their leader, as do rank-and-file members afraid of a Donald-backed primary challenger.

Speaker Mike Johnson admitted he consulted with Trump before declaring the border compromise DOA. Marco Rubio, who two months ago helped pass a law barring any president from withdrawing from NATO, said he had no problem with Trump’s remarks about the alliance.

There are even lines that Haley won’t cross. Asked repeatedly on ABC whether she still plans to endorse Trump if he wins, as she said at the campaign’s outset, Haley kept deflecting the question.

A decade ago, Haley’s pro-military and anti-Russia views would have been a comfortable fit for the Republican Party, but that party no longer exists.