Nikki Haley, like most candidates who have sought to deny Donald Trump the 2024 GOP nomination, has had to carefully calibrate her criticism of the former president, who remains overwhelming popular inside the party. One attack she’s been willing to deploy is to gently suggest that, at 77, he’s too old to be president again.
Trump helped make her case last night in the form of what seemed to be a senior moment, where he repeatedly confused Republican Nikki Haley, who spent years as his UN ambassador, with former Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi. In a rambling digression during a rally in New Hampshire, the former president blamed Haley for security lapses at the Capitol on January 6, even though Haley had left the federal government more than two years before the riot.
The moment came after Trump complained that the media never report on the size of his rally crowds, as compared with Haley’s smaller ones. But then he made his bizarre segue, as he seemed to blame his primary opponent for what happened at the Capitol. “By the way, they never report the crowd on January 6. You know Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, you know, they—do you know they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything, deleted and destroyed all of it. All of it, because of lots of things,” Trump said. “Like Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people, soldiers, National Guards, whatever they want. They turned it down. They don’t want to talk about that. These are very dishonest people.”
A deeply confused Trump confuses Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley multiple times: Nikki Haley was in charge on January 6. They don’t want to talk about that pic.twitter.com/f3lhWgAzUw
— Biden-Harris HQ (@BidenHQ) January 20, 2024
While Haley’s attacks on Trump’s age and cognitive abilities have been somewhat veiled, they still appear to have gotten under Trump’s skin, as earlier this week he felt compelled to again brag about his mental sharpness. “I feel like I’m about 35 years old,” he said. “I actually feel better now than I did 30 years ago. Tell me, is that crazy? I feel better now, and I think cognitively I’m better than I was 20 years ago. I don’t know why.”
The Biden campaign jumped on Trump’s gaffe immediately, tweeting out video of the speech and noting that Republicans “don’t want to talk about that.” But Haley’s rapid response was nowhere to be found, as her campaign instead launched an ad featuring the mother of Otto Warmbier, the Ohio college student who was imprisoned by North Korea’s government in 2017 after traveling there with a school group. When the North Korean government eventually sent Warmbier home 18 months later, he was in a coma and died about a week after returning to the US.
In the ad, Cindy Warmbier talks glowingly about Haley, who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time of her son’s imprisonment. In a press release announcing the ad, Haley’s campaign notes that Trump publicly absolved Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un of Otto’s death, saying, “I don’t believe that he [Kim] would have allowed that to happen…some really bad things happened to Otto—some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
But the ad itself holds its fire, never mentioning Trump. That decision means that unless Republican primary voters already understand how Trump courted the murderous North Korean dictator—even exchanging “love letters,” as the president once put it—the ad is unlikely to make much of an impact. There’s also evidence that most GOP voters just don’t care. Polling from 2018, when Trump’s flirtation with Kim was making headlines, show that nearly 90 percent of Republicans approved of his plan to cozy up to a country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.
You could take it as another example of how Trump, in the eyes of the GOP base, can do no wrong. Perhaps that’s the reason why the most recent polls still show Haley trailing Trump in New Hampshire by 15 points.