If there were any more proof needed that the Republican Party is at war with itself, Nikki Haley provided it Tuesday night.
South Carolina's GOP governor was given an opportunity to rebut President Obama's final State of the Union address, but instead she used her time on national television to bash the presidential front-runner of her own party – Donald Trump.
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The risks to Nimrata Randhawa "Nikki" Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, are huge. As payoff for her willingness to carry water for the GOP establishment led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., she could be rewarded with a cabinet post in the next Republican administration. As some analysts surmise, she could even be picked as Marco Rubio's vice presidential running mate.
But the risks are just as high that her State-of-the-Union gamble will backfire and further bolster Trump as the golden boy of the anti-Washington populism sweeping the nation. (Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Trump is the favorite to take the GOP nomination, according to odds-maker Betfair.)
CNN called Trump the "State of the Union punching bag" because of the way he was targeted by Obama and Haley.
Even the White House complimented Haley for her SOTU rebuttal – not a good sign if you're a Republican.
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"I have a lot of admiration for the governor," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "I think some of the things she has done over the last year are remarkable."
But Haley's stunning and risky rebuttal – some are calling it unprecedented – was not made by Haley herself. Rather, it was a calculated play by the upper echelon of the GOP establishment and its donor class, which is backing Rubio as its candidate to succeed Obama.
Haley admitted in an interview Wednesday with CNN's Don Lemon that her speech was approved by the GOP establishment.
"I'm very thankful Speaker Ryan and Senator McConnell let me give the speech I wanted to give."
When asked if the GOP leaders approved of her text in advance, she confirmed, "They did."
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Watch CNN clip of Haley interview:
'Welcoming' Syrian refugees
Haley has been working for the GOP establishment for some time in South Carolina, removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse and taking the side of the Obama State Department in favor of Syrian refugees, say GOP conservatives in her state.
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Haley has been advised on the refugee issue and other policy matters by David Glaccum, who came to her six months ago from Sen. Lindsey Graham's camp. Glaccum served as Graham's chief counsel before he joined the governor's office in August.
Lauren Martel, a Hilton Head Island attorney and member of the GOP executive committee for Beaufort County, South Carolina, said Haley "stepped out of bounds" in her SOTU rebuttal, and she was likely led in that direction by Glaccum.
"Lindsey Graham was way out of line when he was running for president with some of the things he said about Donald Trump, and Trump called him out on that, and because she's being advised by an attorney who previously worked for Graham, she is now doing the same thing," Martel told WND.
"Clearly Nikki Haley's speechwriters were the same people who wrote the speeches for Lindsey Graham before he dropped out of the race," Martel added. "And Lindsey Graham was way out of line in many of his statements about immigration, refugees, and what the Republican platform stands for."
In one CNN interview last September, Graham said Trump should "go to hell."
As WND previously reported, Graham co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to nearly double spending for refugee resettlement. He withdrew the bill only after the Paris attacks.
Haley, as WND also reported, defended the Syrian refugee program, saying she "trusts" the federal government's vetting system. This despite repeated warnings by top FBI and Homeland Security officials that it was impossible to screen the Syrians for ties to terror because the Syrian government does not have any databases upon which the U.S. could verify their identities. Matthew Emrich, a senior fraud detection investigator for Homeland Security, admitted in testimony before the Senate immigration subcommittee on Oct. 1, 2015, that confirming the identity of the vast majority of Syrian refugees was not possible.
As late as Aug. 28 of last year, WND reported that Haley was among the nation's most "welcoming" governors, opening their arms to the 10,000 Syrian refugees Obama is bringing to the U.S. in fiscal 2016, followed by "many more" in 2017.
While she did write a letter of protest to the Obama administration after the Paris attack and the revelation that one of the eight jihadists had entered Europe as a refugee, she did nothing to prevent Syrian refugees from arriving in her state. In fact, she was not even aware last month when the first Syrian family was dropped off in her state by a division of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine federal contractors who are paid with taxpayer dollars to distribute foreign refugees into more than 180 U.S. cities and towns.
Obama doubles down on refugee placements
Obama plans to increase the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 70,000 last year to 85,000 this year and 100,000 the following year. Approximately half of them will come from countries with active jihadist movements, such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burma.
Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to deport all illegal immigrants and temporarily halt all Muslim immigration.
"Graham, at one point, was saying that his Republican platform would kick Trump out of the Republican Party," Martel said. "Basically Nikki is parroting Lindsey Graham."
Martel said the GOP establishment in South Carolina is "disgustingly corrupt," and Haley has cast her lot with that wing of the party, which strives for unlimited growth in immigration, both legal and illegal.
"Nikki's whole big-tent theory doesn't even make sense in the American constitutional system because not only is she inviting in people, but she is inviting a culture and laws that cannot coexist with our Constitution and laws," she said. "She also is not doing due diligence to study how refugees are going to affect the communities five years out and 10 years out. She is just speaking about feelings and being welcoming without being situationally aware."
Instead of using her national TV time to confront Obama on refugees, when he completely ignored her authority as governor of her state, "she showed she'd rather go after Trump," Martel said.
South Carolina conservatives feel betrayed
Paula Daly, a resident York County, South Carolina, and a Trump supporter, said Haley was elected with the support of tea-party activists like herself, but quickly shifted gears once she assumed office.
"Nikki has never cared about our state, and we who worked to get her elected figured that out within six months to her first year in office," Daly told WND. "I wonder if Rush, Levin, the guy at Red State or the rest of the country for that matter really know the real Nikki. Do they know she signed a second contract and took federal money to bring in Islamic refugees who are using state funds even though it's in the budget proviso they can't?"
Haley also expanded Medicaid, expanded state funding of pre-K with federal grants, and wants to raise gas taxes, Daly said.
She said Haley "hasn't done one thing positive about our corrupt ethics laws that protect the representatives over we the people, and hasn't done one thing to fix our $30 billion in unfunded state pensions, and that's just a small list. But she wants 'We the People' to stop with our anger and not listen to reason when that reason is Donald Trump speaking for us? I don't think so."
Michelle Wiles, another South Carolina activist who run a Facebook page for citizens against refugees called Secure Spartanburg County, said she felt betrayed by her own governor after listening to the SOTU rebuttal.
"Conservatives, be they non-establishment Republicans or independents in South Carolina, were attacked by their own governor, Nikki Haley," Wiles told WND.
Wiles took particular offense at Haley's comment that "Some people think you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation."
"So," Wiles said, "people who speak out are big-mouths and need to be quiet, resist the urge to speak out. We should be good little polite politically correct people."
Wiles said she and many others tried that. It didn't work.
Haley also in her rebuttal that "no one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country."
"Talking about feeling unwelcome. ... Governor Haley, you have trashed the Southern heritage and traditions of the great State of South Carolina," Wiles said. "You invite Muslims here that will take over and bring with them laws you wished you'd never seen."
The professional political analysts from the anti-establishment wing of the GOP were no less infuriated by Haley's attack on Trump.
"If Haley wants to endorse a GOP presidential candidate, hit the stump for that candidate, and rip into Donald Trump, no one is going to begrudge her that," writes John Nolte of Breitbart. "But to use the State of the Union response to publicly attack her own front-runner must be unprecedented, and certainly serves as more proof to Trump's supporters that the Republican establishment is much more interested in D.C. media love than winning elections and advancing their legislative agenda."
Bush, Gingrich support Haley
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took to Twitter Tuesday night to comment on Haley’s speech, calling it a "positive and uplifting response," while former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called her performance "a good first step on the national stage."
She projects the "compassion and inclusiveness the party sorely needs right now," said former RGA Executive Director Phil Cox.
"Our nominee would be crazy not to have her on a very short list" for vice president, added Cox, who runs New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's super PAC.
The Hot Air political blog weighed in with this stinging rebuke: "[W]e’re in a weird place when the GOP's SOTU rebuttal is essentially a rebuttal of the GOP frontrunner. And lest you think that was all Haley, she acknowledged today that her speech, as is customary, was approved by party leaders before she delivered it. It was a group effort."
Trump wasted no time firing back at Haley. He told Fox News the governor’s rebuke was linked to her weakness on illegal immigration.
"No. 1, she's very weak on illegal immigration. I’ve known that for a long time," Trump told the network.
That’s true. In fact, Haley’s vulnerability on this hot-button issue has been exposed in recent months via her mishandling of the ongoing refugee resettlement crisis, noted FitNews, a South Carolina political blog.
Trump also said Haley’s latest attempt to demonize him was "interesting" considering she previously solicited campaign funds from him.
"She certainly has no trouble asking me for campaign contributions," he said. "Because over the years, she's asked me for a hell of a lot of money in campaign contributions. So it's sort of interesting to hear her."
Trump added that "perhaps if I weren't running, she'd be in my office asking me for money. But now that I'm running, she wants to take a weak side on immigration. I feel very strongly about illegal immigration. She doesn't."
Christina Jeffrey, a political scientist living in Spartanburg, South Carolina, who once served as historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, said Haley has been on thin ice for months, not only because of the refugee issue but also because of her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.
"I know she's political, but she's the governor and an awful lot of people that put her in office are also for Donald Trump, and that's sad that she would use the national platform to degrade his campaign," Jeffrey said. "I think it's regrettable and will probably backfire."
Jeffrey said Obama may be able to get away with lecturing the people from a national platform, but South Carolinians don't like to be lectured to from their state politicians.
"I just think it's sad for South Carolina, and it's sad for Nikki Haley, this very bright young woman. And I don't believe it's going to work for her. But we'll see. If she'd read more history and knew more about the world, she could get some wisdom from Winston Churchill, who said you never know now things will work out, so you're better off just doing the right thing."
Martel, the Hilton Head attorney, said Haley is in so deep with the establishment that she can no longer return to her tea-party roots.
"With this connection of her policy adviser to Lindsey Graham, clearly she has a self-serving agenda that conflicts with her sworn duty as the governor of South Carolina," Martel said. "Really, what does she have to say about the presidential primary in South Carolina? Her job was to rebut the statements that Obama gave."