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Haley Is A Forceful Voice On Human Rights, Sen. Coons Says


President Trump says he is going to work quickly to find a replacement for Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley announced her departure yesterday morning. President Trump was alongside her at the White House.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we have a number of people that would very much like to do it. It's a great position. And Nikki realizes that. She's - she's - I think she's helped make it a much better position.

GREENE: Now, Haley is not leaving immediately. She's going to stay on through the end of the year. But this does mean at some point there'll be another high-profile confirmation hearing in the Senate, a chance for Democrats to weigh in on the president's foreign policy. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is one of those Democratic senators. And he joins us this morning. Welcome, Senator.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you, David. Good morning.

GREENE: So you were one of only four senators to oppose Nikki Haley's confirmation. Yesterday, you said that she has helped move U.S. interests forward at the United Nations. What has changed your mind about her?

COONS: Well, I voted against then-Governor Nikki Haley because she had very little, virtually no, foreign policy experience. And she did not impress me in her confirmation hearing as having the relevant experience to be our lead spokesperson at the United Nations. I, after watching her performance and engaging with her regularly over several months, actually called her and said I'd made an - I'd made a mistake, that I thought on human rights and on standing up to Russia, she was a bright spot in the Trump administration's foreign policy team.

Of course, I disagree with a number of the things the Trump administration has done in foreign policy. And she did carry forward a number of the president's America first initiatives at the U.N. But she ended up being a much more forceful voice on American values - in particular, human rights - than I initially had expected.

GREENE: Acknowledging that you made a mistake, does that cause you to approach the next nomination differently? I mean, Dina Powell is someone who is being talked about. She worked in the Bush administration but doesn't have a whole lot more foreign policy experience. But might you give the president a little more deference because you saw what happened with Nikki Haley?

COONS: Well, I know Dina. And I know Dina fairly well. As deputy national security adviser, she actually was very actively engaged in foreign policy formulation early in the Trump administration. I think she'd be a strong nominee. I do think that these positions at the most senior level are very tough on family. And I would hope that if she took the position, that it's something that, you know, we'd have a chance to have a conversation about how she would survive serving in an administration that has some folks with very different priorities.

The national security adviser, John Bolton, is one of the most aggressive at advancing the president's unusual and very strongly nationalist priorities. And at the U.N., that would be a particularly difficult environment because there are few allies left with whom we don't have serious strains over our withdrawal from UNESCO, from the Human Rights Commission, our challenges to the United Nations and its financing.

GREENE: Can I just ask you in general about the party's approach to people the president chooses? I mean, we've just been through a brutal confirmation battle over a Supreme Court justice. You know, a lot of polls suggest that Republican voters out in the country have gotten a lot more energized leading into these midterm elections. Do you think your party needs to think about whether or not it's appearing too obstructionist when it comes to moves that the president makes like this?

COONS: Well, David, if you look at the Foreign Relations Committee, which has been very active and, under Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, has advanced most of the president's nominees really fairly quickly, we've had routine confirmation hearings that have gone, I would say, relatively smoothly - meaning Democrats express their concerns or their opposition. We take a vote. Nobody notices outside of the foreign policy establishment. The reason that Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation was so fraught was not the fight over his jurisprudence. It was the credible allegations of sexual assault and the fact that he now will cement a five-justice conservative majority, possibly for decades to come.

GREENE: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thanks so much for your time. We always appreciate you, Senator.

COONS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: And I want to turn to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who has been listening to this. Hi, Mara.


GREENE: So Nikki Haley, one of the few members of this administration who has publicly disagreed with President Trump. How did that affect her relationship with the White House? And did that play a role at all in her departure here?

LIASSON: Well, it doesn't seem like it. She was very politically adept. She was able to disagree with the president on some things publicly. She once even said that the women who were accusing Trump of sexual misconduct deserved a hearing. But she managed to craft a political persona for herself, which was as a loyal member of the Trump Cabinet but not a sycophant.

You know, she - you said she differed from him. She was tougher, rhetorically, on Russia. But that's true of most of the president's national security team compared to him. She did speak out about human rights. You just heard Senator Coons talk about that. But I don't think Nikki Haley was an outlier so much as she was able to use maybe the distance between Washington and New York City as a way to develop a more independent political brand for herself.

GREENE: And can I just ask you, Mara, I mean, you were listening to Senator Coons there. This whole question of how Democrats should approach this president, I mean, they have a base that they want to fire up. They don't want to be seen as just being anti-Trump and nothing else. Here's a senator who, you know, opposed Haley, came around to say she's done good things. What position is this party in right now?

LIASSON: Well, it's waiting to see what position it's going to be after the elections. I mean, that's the big question. Going forward, will Democrats have more clout in the Senate? Will they take the majority? Will they have more seats? Will they be able to exert more influence on the confirmation process? We don't know that yet. But what I think Senator Coons was trying to explain is on certain things, like a Supreme Court justice that changes the balance of power on the court, they exert themselves as much as they can. On other nominations, they approve the president's pick.

GREENE: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 10, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline incorrectly gave Sen. Chris Coons' last name as Coon.

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