Nikki Haley grilled over's Ukraine conduct, truthfulness

Allan Smith

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Tuesday defended President Donald Trump’s July call with the leader of Ukraine, but said that “it’s never a good practice for us to ask a foreign country to investigate an American. It's just not a good practice.

“Having said that, there’s no insistence on that call, there are no demands on that call, it is a conversation between two presidents that’s casual in nature,” Haley said in an interview on "Today" with NBC News' Savannah Guthrie.

According to the White House record of Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnkiy, Trump asked Zelenskiy for a "favor," suggesting the country probe a debunked conspiracy theory about Democrats and the 2016 election and the Biden family. The call is at the center of the House's impeachment inquiry.

Haley contended that it was appropriate for Trump to ask Ukraine to probe "corruption."

"Okay, but the corruption mentioned by the president here has to do with Joe Biden and the DNC server," Guthrie said. "Those are the two very specific examples."

"An American should want to know the answer of, 'Did Biden pressure the prosecutor to, you know, to do what he did?' And I think there's a real question there. You can question the president, but you also have to question what Biden did," Haley said.

Trump and his allies have pushed a theory that Biden acted improperly as vice president when he called on Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, threatening to hold about $1 billion in aid over the country. Shokin had been investigating Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company Biden's son Hunter sat on the board of. But press accounts say that probe had gone long dormant by the time Biden had pushed for Shokin's ouster, and the removal of that prosecutor was the aim of a number of countries and international bodies. Shokin was alleged of ignoring corruption in Ukraine, not pursuing it.

As Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., put it in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, what Biden had asked for was done for the benefit of U.S. foreign policy with the backing of the international community. Democrats have alleged Trump was seeking investigations that would prove politically beneficial to himself by directing a pressure campaign that included freezing millions in Congress-approved military aid that Ukraine depended on to counter Russian aggression.

In the interview, Guthrie also pressed Haley on Trump's fitness for office and her claims that top officials sought to undermine the president.

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Haley addressed a portion of her new book, "With All Due Respect," where she detailed a meeting she had with Trump after that July 2018 press conference, in which the president appeared to side with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies' determination that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

In the meeting Haley recalled, she told Trump he did not do well alongside Putin, a point that surprised Trump because, in Haley's retelling, she was the only person to tell him such.

Guthrie pressed Haley on that claim.

"Really? You were the only person?" Guthrie asked. "I mean that news conference was globally condemned because of that moment, but you were the only person in the administration who said, hey, that didn’t look so great?"

"That’s what he told me," Haley responded. "I mean when I said I wanted to meet with him, and I go through that in the book, when I said I wanted to meet with him, and I said 'look, this sounded soft.' And he said 'really?' John Kelly was in the room with me when I had this meeting, and he looked at John and he said 'all of you guys said I did great.'"

Guthrie pointed to separate claims from Haley's book, in which she said Kelly, the then-White House chief of staff, and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had sought to undermine Trump's decisions in order to save the country, and asked how she could explain Kelly offering Trump such a positive assessment of his meeting with Putin in light of those assertions.

"You ask him those questions," Haley said, expressing support for Trump's policies toward Russia. "But the issue was that on that topic, no one had said anything to him, and I thought it was hugely important, and you’ll see later, he comes out, and he comes out much stronger on Russia."

Haley also told Guthrie that she did tell Trump of what she described as Kelly and Tillerson's insubordination — an effort to undermine the president that Haley claims they recruited her to be a part of.

Guthrie concluded her interview by asking Haley whether Trump is honest and fit for office. Haley said she never doubted Trump's mental acuity.

"In every instance that I dealt with him, he was truthful, he listened, and he was great to work with," she said.