After her answer to a question about the Civil War sparked backlash from both parties and a wave of negative national media coverage, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley fired back, claiming the question was planted by Democrats who fear facing her in November.
“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery,” Haley told New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath. “I know it was about slavery. I’m from the South.”
The real story, Haley said, is that the Biden campaign and Democrats are planting questions at her town hall events.
“If you watch my town halls, this happened in my entire last race. It’ll happen this time, too. Biden and the Democrats keep sending Democrat plants to do things like this, to get the media to react. We know when they’re there. We know what they’re doing,” Haley said.
The Civil War exchange occurred during a Wednesday night town hall in Berlin, N.H., the unofficial capital of the Granite State’s North Country. The stop was part of a five-city Haley campaign swing through the First in the Nation primary state.
“What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” an attendee asked.
“Well, don’t come with an easy question,” Haley initially said, an apparent attempt at deploying sarcasm to diffuse the situation. “I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do.”
Haley then posed the same question back to her questioner.
“I’m not running for president,” he responded, drawing a quip of “that’s a good thing” from another audience member. “I want your take on the cause of the Civil War.”
Haley then gave a long and winding response about individual liberty and the role of government that never referenced slavery or any other specifics related to the Civil War — or the War Between the States as it is called by many of her fellow South Carolinians.
“I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people,” Haley said.
“Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do… They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so the individual types of liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.”
Her lengthy answer was met with a blunt response.
“In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery,’” the individual said.
The questioner would later decline to share his name or any other personal details with reporters.
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Haley responded.
“You answered my question, thank you,” the questioner replied.
The brief interaction provided the former United Nations ambassador’s opponents on both sides of the aisle with plenty of ammunition for social media.
“It was about slavery,” President Joe Biden posted on X.
“Yikes,” exclaimed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign.
The unidentified man later told reporters he asked the question because he heard her answer it in a similar way when she ran for South Carolina governor in 2010. He said he wanted to know if her views had since changed.
In 2015, while governor of the Palmetto State, Haley was widely praised for successfully removing the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina state house and to a Confederate monument, resolving an issue that had plagued her state’s politics for years.
Haley’s 2010 answer is an apparent reference to an interview she held with a southern heritage activist group, the since-defunct Palmetto Patriots. A video of the interview was released by CNN last February.
In the interview, Haley said the Civil War was about two sides butting heads because one side stood for “tradition” while the other supported “change.”
Pressed by the heritage group on what that meant, Haley answered, “on individual rights and liberty of people.”
Thursday morning, Haley made it clear she believed the Civil War question came straight from Democrats.
“It was definitely a Democrat plant,” Haley told Heath. “That’s why I said, ‘What does it mean to you?’ And if you notice, he didn’t answer anything. The same reason he didn’t tell the reporters what his name was. The same reason he went and showed the guy that he was with the tweet that went up after he did it.
“We see these guys when they come [to our events]. We know what they’re doing, and we know from the second they ask the question; if you look at the last swing I did in New Hampshire, there was one at every single town hall. This is what they do. And I’m trying to turn the questions back on them,” Haley said.
Not good enough, critics said.
“She couldn’t answer a question any fourth-grade civics student could answer,” MAGA Inc. spokesperson Karoline Leavitt told Heath in an interview later Thursday morning. “If she can’t handle that question, how will she handle the onslaught of questions that will come from Democrats in the general election?”
“So she can’t handle questions from alleged Democrat activists? What is she going to do when handling dictators and tyrants as president?” asked state Rep. Ross Berry (R-Manchester), a DeSantis supporter.
But veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Jim Merrill said he doesn’t believe the story will significantly impact Haley’s candidacy.
“Nikki Haley is the strong leader, not to mention a woman of color, who grew up in South Carolina and had the guts to take on the good ol’ boy network and order the Confederate flag removed from the State House grounds in the face of serious opposition,” Merrill told NHJournal. “To suggest she doesn’t understand the horrors of slavery is absurd.”
While Haley’s back-and-forth regarding the Civil War’s origins overshadowed Wednesday’s town hall, other topics that came up during the event included foreign relations, border security, veterans’ health care – and Donald Trump.
The former president’s super PAC has recently targeted Haley with a flurry of attack ads, referring to her as “High Tax Haley” and accusing her of backing an increase to her state’s gas tax – which Haley has disputed.
In actuality, Haley’s proposal was tied to her push to cut state income tax by 30 percent. Neither proposal went anywhere.
“If they have to lie about me, that means we’re surging,” Haley said.
As for the recent court decision in Colorado seeking to bump Trump off of that state’s Republican primary ballot, Haley again opposed the ruling.
“I will defeat Mr. Trump fair and square, but I don’t think keeping him off of the ballot is the way I want to win,” Haley said. “And that’s incredibly dangerous as far as democracy goes.”
Haley’s campaign was significantly boosted earlier this month when Gov. Chris Sununu offered her his endorsement.
Sununu was not in attendance at Wednesday’s event.
Visit New Hampshire Journal’s FITN 2024 calendar page to keep track of each candidate’s schedule.