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Nikki Haley backpedals amid criticism after omitting 'slavery' from Civil War causes

After a voter said he found it “astonishing” that Haley hadn’t used the word “slavery” at any point in her answer, she asked, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
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BERLIN, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley declined Wednesday to say slavery was a cause of the Civil War, arguing instead that it came down to “the role of government.”

At a New Hampshire town hall, a voter bluntly asked Haley, “What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is aiming to present herself as the top Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump, gave a lengthy answer but did not mention slavery — the primary cause of the war.

“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” she said at the beginning of her response.

On Thursday, she appeared to backpedal, saying in a radio interview on “Good Morning New Hampshire” that “of course, the Civil War was about slavery” and that her comments reflect what it “means to us today.”

“What it means to us today is about freedom — that’s what that was all about. It was about individual freedom,” she said. “It was about economic freedom. It was about individual rights.”

Haley then suggested without evidence that the voter who asked the question was a “plant” sent by Democrats, arguing that allies of President Joe Biden are trying to influence the primary to ensure he faces former President Donald Trump in the general election.

“Biden and the Democrats keep sending Democrat plants to do things like this to get the media to react,” she said. “We know when they’re there; we know what they’re doing. Why is Biden doing that? Why isn’t he doing it to any other candidate? It’s because he knows I defeat him by double digits.

“It’s also because they know they want to run against Trump,” she added. “They’re trying to help Trump — they’ve tried to help Trump this whole time.”

Asked whether she thought the voter was a “Democrat plant” or just a typical New Hampshire voter when she was asked the question about the Civil War, Haley replied, “No, it was definitely a Democrat plant.

“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,” she said.

“We see these guys when they come in, we know what they’re doing, and we know from the second they asked the question, if you look at the last one, I did New Hampshire, there was one at every single town hall,” she added. “This is what they do, and I’m trying to turn the questions back on them. In this case, this is, you know, this is what happened, but yeah, this is what they’re doing. And so if you notice, he didn’t mention anything about slavery, he didn’t talk about it, because that wasn’t the intent. That was never his intent.”

New Hampshire allows unaffiliated voters to vote in the Republican primary, a population that has been seen as a potential boost to candidates like Haley or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Haley doubled down on her defense at a town hall Thursday morning.

“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that that’s unquestioned, always the case,” she said. “We know the Civil War was about slavery, but it was also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government for 80 years.”

Haley had given a lengthy answer at the Wednesday town hall that set off the controversy.

“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.

“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 don’t need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom,” she said. “We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the 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.”

After the voter responded by saying he found it “astonishing” that Haley had not used the word “slavery” at any point in her answer, she asked, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”

Haley then moved on to the next question.

The exchange drew a swift response from Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison. “This isn’t hard: condemning slavery is the baseline for anyone who wants to be president of the United States,” he said in a statement.

Biden also responded on X, saying, "It was about slavery."

Haley’s campaign responded by citing remarks she made addressing the issue in a New Hampshire interview Thursday morning.

“Yes, we know the Civil War was about slavery,” Haley said in the interview. “But more than that, what’s the lesson in all this? That freedom matters. And individual rights and liberties matter for all people. That’s the blessing of America. That was a stain on America when we had slavery. But what we want is never relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”

Some New Hampshire voters expressed dissatisfaction with Haley’s comments about the Civil War when they were asked for their reaction Thursday morning.

Hella Ross, an undeclared voter who is leaning toward voting for Haley, said she gave a “total softball” response to the question.

“It’s astounding to me that she got tripped up. However, it proves, once again, that she’s concerned about alienating the MAGA crowd/base. Shameful, but she can’t have it both ways,” Ross said.

After Haley tried to walk back her comments Thursday morning, Ross said: “Damage control is always challenging.”

Thalia Floras, another undeclared voter from New Hampshire, was prepared to commit her vote to Haley, but she was shocked by her comments.

“I am not satisfied with her follow-up on it,” Floras said. “I think she is tiptoeing around the subject. When you are the president of the United States, you can’t tiptoe around the Civil War. It’s not a gray area. I’m horrified she’s whitewashing this.”

Marie Mulory, an independent voter who has attended dozens of town halls and is leaning toward voting for Haley, said: “It may have just been an attempt to give one of her normal answers where she tries to be all things to all people and this just backfired horrendously.”

The response to Haley’s comments follows similar criticism that a GOP rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, faced over his remarks about state standards that teach about the “personal benefit” Black people derived from slavery.

DeSantis was asked in July about the Florida Board of Education’s wording in its guidance for teaching about slavery and said, “I didn’t do it, and I wasn’t involved in it.” He went on to say, “I think what they’re doing is, I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into, into doing things later in life,” referring to enslaved people.

In response to Haley's comments about the cause of the Civil War, DeSantis called it a "really incomprehensible word salad" and said she "tends to cave" when she faces scrutiny from the media.

"Yesterday, not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War, and yet that seemed to be something that was really difficult, and I don’t even know what she was saying," he said. "If you, if you listen to that answer, I know she’s trying to clean it up."

DeSantis pointed to Haley's suggestion that Democrats were behind the voter’s asking her about the cause of the Civil War.

"I know she’s trying to blame a Democrat plant. Look, I mean, you’re going to get asked a lot of questions. I mean, you’re going to get asked a lot of tough questions — that’s just the nature of this business," he said. "And I think that she’s shown time and time again that when it’s time, when the lights get hot, that she wilts under pressure, and that was a good example last night."

Haley was governor when South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its Capitol following the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. She has previously talked about how the shooting was the most difficult time for her emotionally as governor.