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Senate Panel Grills S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley In Her Bid To Become U.N. Ambassador

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump once dismissed the United Nations as a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. His pick to become the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. says she doesn't see it that way. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was a surprise pick for the post. She was not a Trump supporter during the Republican primaries. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she's a businesswoman turned politician with no foreign policy experience. But at her Senate confirmation hearing, Haley said she's ready to work to reform the U.N. and to challenge the anti-Israel bias at the world body.

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NIKKI HALEY: It is what I've done all my life. I love to fix things. And I see a U.N. that can absolutely be fixed.

KELEMEN: Haley fielded questions about topics from North Korea to Iran. The ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin, zeroed in on Russia, which he says meddled in U.S. elections and faces sanctions for its actions in Ukraine. Haley reassured him those sanctions should only be lifted if Russia takes positive steps.

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HALEY: What I'll tell you is Russia is trying to show their muscle right now. It is what they do. And I think we always have to be cautious. I don't think that we can trust them.

KELEMEN: She said she believes Russia carried out war crimes in Syria, and she vowed to make sure the U.S. remains - in Haley's words - a moral compass at the U.N. Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he felt the hearing was taking place in an alternate universe.

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CHRIS MURPHY: President-elect Trump has downplayed Russian attempts to influence our election. He's suggested that NATO is obsolete. He's openly rooted for the breakup of the European Union. He's lavished praise on Vladimir Putin and refused to commit to continuing sanctions.

KELEMEN: And the list went on. Haley said what's important is what Trump will say once he's in office and has his team advising him.

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HALEY: That's how an administration works. You surround yourself with people who don't just say yes to what you think. They actually challenge you, and they tell you of other opinions. And what I know about president-elect is he actually will listen.

KELEMEN: The South Carolina governor told the Senate committee that she has spoken to Trump about Russia and about China but not in much detail. She distanced herself from Trump's Twitter comments that are dismissive of America's longtime alliances.

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HALEY: It is important that we have alliances. I know the president-elect realizes that. It is important that we create coalitions, and I know that he realizes that as well. And so his comments are really coming from the fact that he does have a fresh set of eyes. He is looking at those things. But my job's not just at the U.N. My job is to come back to the National Security Council and let them know what I know.

KELEMEN: When Trump tapped her, he decided to keep the U.N. ambassador as a Cabinet-level post, and Haley was reassuring senators that she will take that part of the job seriously if confirmed. The Republican chairman of the committee, Bob Corker, predicts Haley will get overwhelming support. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.