(Bloomberg) -- As Nikki Haley confronts her biggest test so far as U.S. envoy to the UN -- persuading the Security Council to further tighten sanctions on North Korea -- she’s leaning on a key adviser with little foreign policy experience: her South Carolina pollster.
Jon Lerner, a political strategist who helped get Haley elected twice as the Palmetto State’s governor, is the ambassador’s Washington-based deputy. While Haley has talked about the direct access she has to President Donald Trump, the 49-year-old Lerner serves as her eyes and ears on the ground in the nation’s capital: a critical role as Haley’s profile rises in an administration buffeted by leaks and turmoil.
Lerner accompanied Haley to Vienna last month to meet International Atomic Energy Agency investigators over Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord opposed by Trump. And he helped draft Haley’s Iran-focused speech in Washington last week that signaled a shift in administration policy toward the deal.
The effectiveness of their partnership will be tested Monday as Haley seeks to persuade Russia and China -- who wield veto power on the UN Security Council -- to go along with the most stringent sanctions yet against Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Heading into that meeting, China showed little willingness to restrict oil exports to North Korea, a critical lifeline for Kim’s regime that helps Beijing avoid having a failed state on its border. In response to opposition from China and Russia, the U.S. has watered down its proposal, omitting an oil embargo and a freeze of Kim Jong Un’s assets, according to a European diplomat who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.
But Haley has also made it clear she isn’t interested in a symbolic United Nations vote, saying the time for “half-measures” is over.
“I suspect that Haley wants to avoid the sort of endless, low-impact diplomatic bartering that the U.S. got trapped in over Syria with Russia,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the tough U.S. approach could also backfire big-time.”
Haley’s aggressive public stance -- she’s said Kim’s actions show him to be “begging for war” -- have earned her the ire of North Korean state media, which warned that the U.S. “will pay a dear price for her tongue-lashing.” And it’s a marked contrast from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who saw his muted praise of North Korea’s restraint in launching missiles last month undermined by additional missile and nuclear tests.
Haley’s high-profile performance as UN envoy has fanned speculation that she harbors ambitions to run for president or vice president at some point. In addition to her speeches she’s a prolific poster on Twitter.
Haley’s public persona, whether at the UN, in Washington or back in the South Carolina capital, has long been guided by Lerner, who started working with her in 2009. He had previously advised her predecessor as South Carolina governor, Mark Sanford, who became embroiled in a scandal after it was revealed he had engaged in an affair and lied about his whereabouts while in office.
Haley, the 45-year-old daughter of Sikh immigrants, described her relationship with Lerner in her 2012 book, “Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story.”
“Where I follow my gut, Jon relies on facts and the statistics he finds in his polling,” Haley wrote. “I used to call him a ‘lemon’ because he never got excited about anything.”
Haley’s national profile surged in 2015 as governor when, after a deadly rampage by a white gunman at a black church in Charleston, she supported efforts to take down the Confederate flag at the statehouse, saying it “should never have been there.” She never came out as a Trump surrogate during last year’s Republican primaries, instead endorsing Florida Senator Marco Rubio after he and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush jockeyed for her support.
After Trump’s win, though, she met with him at Trump Tower in New York. While the meeting was scheduled to discuss the job of secretary of state, Haley has said that post wasn’t offered. But the UN ambassador’s post later was, despite Haley’s relative lack of foreign policy experience. Since then, her position in New York has proved something of a safe haven where Haley has largely avoided many of the political disputes that have dogged other Trump aides.
Like Haley, Lerner has a thin foreign policy resume, but that may be less important to the UN envoy than having someone she can trust implicitly in Washington.
“It’s important in the thick political mud of the UN to have folks around you that can be quick and strong,” said Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina, and one of the early promoters of the Tea Party movement. Lerner’s biggest strength, DeMint said, is that “he’s got a very good strategic mind.”
In a rare public comment, Lerner described himself in an email as inspired by anti-Communist movements.
“My hostility to anti-American authoritarian governments that began with anti-Communism remains my primary motivation,” Lerner wrote. “That manifests itself today in places that include North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia.”
Lerner is a conservative but, like Haley, not a Trump conservative. He advised the tax-cut focused Club for Growth for 15 years through 2016. Another client was Conservative Solutions PAC, which raised money in support of Rubio’s presidential campaign. Other clients have included Republican Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah.
Lerner is the founder and principal of Red Sea LLC in Bethesda, Maryland, a Washington suburb, and of Basswood Research, which conducts political polling.
Rubio, who has praised Haley’s tenure from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the envoy’s success so far is in part due to Lerner’s advice.
‘Real Good Team’
"Jon’s doing a great job and I think that’s reflected in the work Nikki is doing," Rubio said in an interview. "She’s got a real good team and I think it shows in the end result. Jon is certainly a big part of that."
Amid growing international crises from North Korea to Venezuela, Haley’s prominent public profile can be a mixed blessing in the Trump administration, where turmoil and turnover have plagued the White House. Lerner, as Haley’s deputy, can keep abreast of those developments from his post in Washington better than Haley can from New York.
Regardless of the political fights in Washington, Haley’s success will be fleeting if she can’t rally U.S. allies and rivals alike to support tougher restrictions on North Korea, starting with the Security Council meeting Monday. The alternatives to diplomacy are grim: a fully nuclear North Korea able to strike the U.S., or a military conflict that would prompt Pyongyang to unleash a devastating attack on Seoul.
Yet Haley’s taken such a tough public stance that it could be hard to see a negotiated agreement with China and Russia for lesser sanctions -- the most likely outcome -- as a victory, according to Gowan.
“If she settles on a weaker set of sanctions, her critics may mutter that she has gone soft,” he said.