Nikki Haley’s decision to become the first Republican to jump into the 2024 race against Donald Trump has finally given the Trump campaign an official foe. And even if Haley has little interest in slamming Trump—four Trump advisers told The Daily Beast they think Haley’s presidential run is more about running for vice president—Trump’s campaign appears eager to slam Haley.
With the former UN ambassador telegraphing her presidential announcement, the Trump campaign is champing at the bit to finally vanquish an enemy after a sleepy first few months. Those familiar with the discussions on how to handle Trump’s first 2024 primary opponent see Haley as a weak candidate offering the former president a chance to settle a score, as well as an opportunity to experiment with new tactics.
Trump previewed that strategy last week when he posted on Truth Social that “Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honor. She should definitely run!”
In Haley, Trump has a weak opponent he can easily dispense with. Polls have shown Haley polling around 3 percent, compared to Trump's 48 percent. A rival that Trump can crush early—like Alabama football going against Austin Peay in September—could allow Trump to show voters that he’s still a force in the GOP. However, there are two schools of thought about how Haley is most useful to Trump.
Some in Trump’s orbit see a chance to bury Haley early and often, using her campaign like a crash test dummy to demonstrate Trump’s dominance for anyone else willing to step in. But Haley could also be useful in splitting the Republican primary vote and allowing Trump to cruise through the primaries with his strong base of voters who aren't going anywhere.
Still, for others, Haley’s lack of a perceived threat will allow Trump to attempt something akin to “coalition building” during the primary.
“In 2016, you come at the king, you’re gonna get wrecked,” an adviser who speaks with Trump told The Daily Beast. “In 2024, I think there’s going to be a different kind of Trump on display. He’ll be all 2016 on guys like DeSantis, but Haley, who had a respectful conversation with him? He will deal with her in a 2024 fashion.”
What that looks like is largely predictable based on Haley’s decision to declare in 2021 that she wouldn’t challenge him in a run for president, only to shift course in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
“They’ll definitely have a nickname for her,” the source close to Trump said. “He had a nickname for every one of his opponents in 2016, so that tactic—while some of his tactics have proven to be ineffective or people have learned to deal with him—the naming works.”
Recurring themes—among four Trump operatives that spoke with The Daily Beast—included depicting Haley as “disloyal,” “a flip-flopper,” a war “hawk,” and backed by Wall Street. Another one that Trump himself has been briefed on is the allegation that Haley’s donors “have ties to China.”
One GOP strategist described Haley as “the Carly Fiorina of 2024.”
“Trump will lean in on her past liberal stances on Black Lives Matter, crime, and immigration that are very weak,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations among GOP operatives about Haley. “He will also surely play up her political flip-flops and promising not to run, now that she is jumping in. Basically, he will paint her as just another politician who doesn’t believe anything and only wants power.”
There are plenty of examples of Haley flip-flopping on her support of Trump.
“Every time someone criticizes him, he goes and makes a political attack back. That’s not who we are as Republicans,” Haley declared back in 2015. “That’s not what we do.”
Following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Haley also took aim at her former boss.
“I think he’s going to find himself further and further isolated,” Haley told Politico Magazine. “I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have.”
Multiple sources close to Trump also raised the prospect of Haley’s run being an audition for a Trump vice presidential slot.
“There’s a significant number of us that think she wants to be vice president, and if she does, it makes sense,” the first source close to Trump said. “So in order to show your stuff, to show your mettle that you can be a solid partner on the national stage, that’s what you do.”
“The race for VP starts now,” a second source close to Trump said.
Trump administration alums have also shared that thinking publicly.
“Nikki Haley is a self-centered politician. I think she’s seeing her shot, and she’s playing for VP,” former Trump body man John McEntee said on a local news broadcast last week. “She knows a Trump and DeSantis war is coming.”
Likewise, former Trump White House communications associate turned failed congressional candidate Karoline Leavitt tweeted that McEntee’s assessment was “not wrong.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, there has been a move within Trumpworld to formulate an informal list of possible Trump vice presidential contenders. And while all the candidates on the list—including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and failed Arizona Gov. candidate Kari Lake—have taken to flattering Trump publicly, Haley’s thinking seems to go in the opposite direction.
A spokesperson for Haley did not return a request for comment.
Trump places a “premium on loyalty,” one of the previously mentioned sources close to Trump said, which would leave her far on the outside of VP conversations.
Echoing sentiments expressed by operatives within Trump’s circle, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell—who speaks to Trump from time to time on the phone—said that Haley is “wasting her time!” “Everyone thinking of running against Donald Trump should just endorse him immediately,” he added.
The first source close to Trump recalled a meeting during the 2016 transition where Trump first remarked on the possibility of a Haley White House bid.
“All of us around Trump know that when she came for her final interview with the president to be United Nations ambassador, the president said, ‘Well this will set you up well to run for president,’” the first Trump adviser said. “She said, ‘Well maybe I’d be interested, but I’d never run against you, Mr. President. Never.’”
“So, does Donald Trump thinks she’s being disloyal? Yes, he does,” the source close to Trump continued. “But the difference between her and DeSantis is she’s an ‘also-ran’. Donald Trump doesn’t need to fear her. He’s gonna toy with her.”
Another source within Trump’s inner circle predicted Haley would call it quits “barely after Iowa.” But, such an estimate remains generous in Trumpworld; many others believe Haley won’t even make it that long.
While The New York Times reported the Trump campaign has begun assembling a vast opposition research folder against DeSantis—predominantly filled with the Florida governor’s pro-vaccine remarks—one of the Trump sources said his campaign has put hardly the same effort toward generating a Haley file.
When it comes to Trumpworld trial attacks on potential rivals, one person Trumpworld has kept a keen eye on is Newsmax host Greg Kelly. Kelly, a staunch Trump supporter, has aired monologues where he goes in against DeSantis and more recently aimed at Haley. Unlike other pro-Trump pundits that often struggle to carry out Trumpian attacks, Kelly has shown a knack for it.
“This is Nikki Haley, and she thinks she can be president,” Kelly said of Haley last week, before calling her candidacy a “big, big, big mistake.” The Newsmax host queued up a clip from 2021 where Haley told a reporter that if Trump ran in 2024, she would support him.
“How about that?” Kelly responded after he played the clip. “She’s doomed. Her candidacy is doomed right here. This clip. She can’t be a candidate for president.” Trump would go on to share the Kelly monologue on Truth Social.
Others think she may not last that long, but it might be in the Trump campaign’s best interest for her not to sink right away—at least making it to when the voting starts in February 2024.
“Anything over five is a crowded field,” one of the sources close to Trump said. “If it’s a crowded field, all Trump has to do is hold onto his base. And you know the Republican Party; we love a primary.”