(WASHINGTON) — Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley apparently backpedaled on her once tough rhetoric toward Saudi Arabia’s crown prince — suggesting Haley, who was once a Cabinet-level diplomat, may have malleable views on key foreign policy issues.
While Haley previously said she held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “responsible” for the 2018 murder of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, she seemingly changed her tune on the Saudi leader, known as “MBS,” in remarks on Tuesday, stressing that the United States needs Arab countries to “be with us.”
“We need more friends. I mean, look at what happened: Biden goes and basically calls Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah.’ Now, MBS is going to outlive every leader. He’s young. You called him a ‘pariah’ and what did you do? You sent him to China,” Haley said at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. “We need the Arab countries to be with us, not China, and my guess is they would rather be with us than China.”
In October 2022, Haley expressed some degree of understanding of the decision of OPEC+, which is led by Saudi Arabia, to slash oil production after President Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in 2019 — but notably made no mention of MBS, whom she previously strongly criticized.
“I don’t know why he’s mad when you go and you call for the rest of the world to make Saudi Arabia an international pariah, when you go in [and] you fall all over yourself to get into the Iran deal, which upsets all of the Arab countries,” Haley told Fox News in 2022.
In 2018, Haley said that “the Saudi government doesn’t get a pass” when speaking about whether the Saudi government needs to be held accountable for the murder of Khashoggi.
“The whole situation with Khashoggi is, we can’t give them a pass. We can’t,” Haley said in a 2018 interview with The Atlantic magazine. “The reason is, you have Saudi government officials that did this in a Saudi consulate. The Saudi government doesn’t get a pass. We can’t condone it, we can’t ever say it’s okay, we can’t ever support thuggish behavior, and we have to say that.”
Asked specifically whether there should be consequences for MBS, Haley said at the time, “It’s his government. His government did this, and so he technically is responsible.”
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations touched on several other international topics during her Tuesday remarks, calling out both former President Donald Trump and Biden for their handling of China.
“President Trump is almost singularly focused on our trade relationship with China. He was right about our trade abuses. It was instilled as a critical issue. But Trump did too little about the rest of the Chinese threat,” said the former ambassador. “China was militarily stronger when President Trump left office than when he entered. That’s bad. But Joe Biden’s record is much worse.”
Haley said Trump came up “short” with China and showed moral weakness.
“Even the trade deal he signed came up short when China predictably failed to live up to its commitment,” she said. “He also showed moral weakness.”
Haley has waffled in her loyalty to Trump since leaving his administration. Before launching her campaign in February, Haley said in 2021 that she would not mount a 2024 bid if Trump entered the race. But in early 2021, Haley suggested Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 riot should be disqualifying for seeking the presidency again, telling Politico magazine, “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
When asked Tuesday about the newly-released audio recording of Trump appearing to acknowledge he held onto a sensitive military document after leaving office although he could no longer declassify it because he was no longer president, Haley demurred, saying she will let the courts make a decision.
“In terms of the recording that’s happened, we’re going to let the courts play that out,” she said.
The contents of the recording, made during a July 21, 2021, meeting at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, have been previously reported and are quoted in the Justice Department’s 37-count indictment related to Trump’s handling of classified documents after leaving office. ABC News was able to confirm the authenticity of the recording from another source who has heard it.
Trump pled not guilty this month to 37 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials, after prosecutors said he repeatedly refused to return hundreds of documents containing classified information ranging from U.S. nuclear secrets to the nation’s defense capabilities. He has denied all charges and denounced the probe as a political witch hunt.
Trump has a comfortable lead in the race for the Republican nomination.
ABC News’ Carly Roman and Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.
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