Until recently, former President Donald J. Trump mostly ignored Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and his onetime United Nations ambassador turned rival in the 2024 presidential race. No longer.
After two strong debate performances, Ms. Haley has seen a jolt of momentum, and in polls of the early voting states New Hampshire and South Carolina, she has leapfrogged Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida as the runner-up to Mr. Trump. On Friday, after the second debate of Republican candidates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California that Mr. Trump skipped, the former president attacked her as “birdbrain” on his social media site, Truth Social. Over the weekend, his campaign appeared to escalate by sending a bird cage and seed to her hotel.
A handwritten note attached to the bars of the bird cage said it came from the Trump campaign, according to a post that Ms. Haley shared on Sunday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Ms. Haley has taken the shift in his attention as a sign that Mr. Trump now sees her as a real threat.
Betsy Ankney, her campaign manager, called the behavior “weird, creepy and desperate.” “It’s more proof that it’s time to leave the drama behind,” she said in a statement. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The bitter exchanges are the latest twist in the long relationship between Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump, who still leads Ms. Haley and all of his other primary rivals by double digits in the polls.
On the trail, Ms. Haley has walked a fine line between praise and criticism of her former boss: She has said that Mr. Trump uplifted the voices of rural Americans and handled the U.S.-Mexico border better than President Biden. But she has also called Mr. Trump “thin-skinned and easily distracted” and criticized his administration’s spending. She has said that unlike Mr. Trump, she believes that Jan. 6, 2021, the day the U.S. Capitol was violently ransacked by a pro-Trump mob intent on disrupting the formalization of Mr. Biden’s election win, was “a terrible day.”
Mr. Trump has mostly been silent on Ms. Haley since she first began her campaign in February. At the time, he called her an “overly ambitious” person who “just couldn’t stay in her seat.” Some critics viewed his comments as sexist.
When Ms. Haley first won the Republican primary for South Carolina governor in 2010, Mr. Trump mailed her “a campaign contribution in a gold-trimmed envelope,” she writes in her memoir, “With All Due Respect.” The two met in New York several times when she was there on business, and he seemed to follow her career — and even cheer her on, she said. He occasionally sent her news clips that mentioned her, and after she was re-elected in 2014, he faxed her his congratulations: “Nikki — You’re a winner!”
That did not stop Ms. Haley from endorsing Senator Marco Rubio of Florida over Mr. Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Mr. Trump still went on to pick her for U.N. ambassador — and gave her a glowing review upon her departure.
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