WASHINGTON (CN) – Jostled from her boast about preventing a chemical attack in Syria this week, United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley stunned members of Congress on Wednesday by saying she and President Trump have never discussed Russia’s 2016 election meddling.
“The biggest question that we’ve had recently is Russia’s involvement and what they’ve done to our democracy,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., told the former governor of South Carolina. “And for you not to have had a conversation with the president of the United States about that involvement is absolutely shocking to me.”
Haley emphasized that the issue simply is not on her radar.
“I don’t get asked about any of those things at the United Nations,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, insisting that her focus has been on U.S. leadership and its global standing.
Haley said the White House spoke to its global standing Monday in issuing a stern warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I think by us continuing to remind Iran and Russia that, while they choose to back Assad, that this was something we were not going to put up with,” Haley said. “So I would like to think that the president saved many innocent men, women and children.”
Trump specifically deserves the credit for preventing a chemical attack in Syria, Haley testified.
“I can tell you that due to the president’s actions, we did not see an incident,” Haley said.
Haley did not dispute the finding of various U.S. intelligence agencies about the interference America saw in its 2016 election, and she said has been outspoken in criticizing Russia for it.
“You’ve seen me bash Russia on Ukraine, you’ve seen me bash Russia on Syria, you’ve seen me call out Russia if we see any sort of wrongdoings by Russia,” she said, counting each point on her fingers as she spoke.
“And yes – I do think Russia meddled in our elections,” Haley continued. “And yes I have said that to the president.”
Not once, Haley added, has the president called her and asked her to stop bashing Russia.
“Mr. Meeks, we have really put a strong voice of the U.S. at the UN,” Haley told the New York congressman. “I mean, they know we’re back. They know we’re strong.”
Meeks disputed this point, however, highlighting research that says the mixed messages from the Trump administration have frustrated constituents and allies alike who feel betrayed and believe the president has diminished U.S. standing in the world.
The Pew Research Center spoke to this trend just this past Monday, reporting that Trump’s policies are broadly unpopular around the world, especially among U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. Only 22 percent of survey respondents in 37 countries expressed confidence that President Trump would handle international affairs the right way.
President Obama by contrast drew a 64 percent confidence rating at the end of his administration for directing the U.S. global role in the world.
The only two countries that expressed more confidence in President Trump than in Obama are Russia and Israel. While Israel’s confidence grew by 7 percentage points, Russia’s jumped by 42, growing from 11 percent confidence in Obama to 53 percent confidence in Trump.
During questioning from Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., Haley said she hasn’t seen the poll, and that she doesn’t feel any disapproval of the United States in her capacity as UN ambassador.
For the 192 UN member states that she deals with, Haley said the overwhelming feeling among them is that the U.S. is unpredictable.
She said that reputation has worked to our advantage because it keeps them on alert – they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the U.S.
“My goal is to have a relationship with everyone and to make sure that I show that the U.S. wants to get political solutions to all things, and work with countries to do that,” Haley said.
Titus then asked if the unpredictability poses a danger, or complicates international diplomacy, but Haley responded that it has actually made negotiations better.
“It’s made it easier because they don’t assume, they don’t take us for granted anymore,” Haley said. “They no longer look at us as one that they can just push over and know exactly what we’re going to do.”
During three hours of testimony, lawmakers heaped hefty praise on Haley for her support for Israel at the UN.
Discounting Israel’s well-documented human-rights abuses against Palestinians during its 50-year occupation of Palestinian land, Haley spoke at length about her efforts to reform the Human Rights Council, which the U.S. has threatened to leave unless the 47-member Geneva-based body drops its focus on Israel.
In the face of decades of failed peace talks, Palestinians have turned to the UN and the Human Rights Council as vehicles through which they can pursue the right to self-determination and hold Israel accountable for human-rights violations. Israel has long opposed these efforts, insisting that the conflict should be dealt with only through negotiations.
Part of Haley’s reform efforts include steering Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan away from the Human Rights Council’s permanent Agenda Item Seven, which focuses on human-rights abuses in the Palestinian territories and other Arab-occupied territories. According to Haley’s testimony Wednesday, those three countries are the only ones that remain opposed to removing the agenda item, which Haley said has been used to abuse and bash Israel at the UN.
All other members have agreed to move debate about human-rights abuses involving Israel to Agenda Item Four, which deals with human-rights issues that require the council’s attention, Haley said, adding that she believes the Palestinians will soon be on board with the proposed shift.
The Human Rights Council has taken heat over the years for singling Israel out over other countries with poor human-rights records. The Council on Foreign Relations undercut this image, however, in reporting that resolutions targeting Israel have significantly declined since 2006, when the Human Rights Council aimed 60 percent of its resolutions at Israel. Since 2012, marking President Obama’s second term in office, that number dipped to 20 percent or less, where it has remained.
The proposed shifts at the UN have alarmed Palestinian advocates, including Palestinian writer Ramzy Baroud, who said in a June 21 opinion piece that Israeli leaders have been empowered by Haley’s pro-Israel stance in ways that could harm Palestinian rights.
Baroud noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Haley in early June to shut down UNRWA, the UN body tasked with caring for 5 million Palestinian refugees.
Formed in 1949 after the Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA gets most of its funding from voluntary contributions from UN member states, including the U.S.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., probed Haley on the issue, asserting that UNRWA allows members of Hamas, a Palestinian political party that the U.S. has designated as a terror group, to sit on some of its boards, and also allows the use of textbooks that delegitimize Israel.
UNRWA conducts a significant portion of its operations in Gaza, a Hamas-controlled territory that has been under an Israeli-imposed blockade since 2007, where 80 percent of Palestinians rely on international aid.
Citing recent trips to UNRWA camps, Haley said she spoke with officials about the issues Perry raised, adding that more work needs to be done to address them.
Perry was critical with Haley for preferring reforms to shutting down UNRWA completely.
“How much longer should folks like me wait on behalf of the American taxpayer until they clean up their act?” Perry asked. “I mean it’s been 67 years – how much longer should we wait?”
Haley said later that UNRWA should limit the number of Palestinians it considers refugees, but noted that disbandment of the UNRWA would require the creation of a replacement body to to cover its various services.
“The schooling and the health care, for those groups in there, I mean there’s no other place for them to get it,” Haley said.
Swarmed by attendees after the hearing, Haley was patient and gracious, acknowledged each of them, and snapping selfies with several, as her security detail tried to usher her outside.
One man there with a group of Iranians protesting executions in Iran thanked Haley for drawing attention to Iranian human-rights abuses.
Haley shook his hand, smiled and thanked him for the sentiment.