Birdcages and 'new blood': Tensions between Nikki Haley, Donald Trump boil over after Republican debate

Fresh off another presidential debate filled with several juicy soundbites, Republican candidate Nikki Haley returned to Iowa Saturday, seeking to capitalize on her momentum with voters.

Haley spoke to a crowd of 200 potential caucusgoers at a town hall event in Clive, where her recent debate performances are prompting some Iowans to take a second look at the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor.

At the second debate, which was held in Simi Valley, California, Haley once again called out presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy – this time slamming the Ohio biotech entrepreneur for his stance on the social media platform TikTok.

U.S. lawmakers have sought to remove the short-form video app – which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance – from federal government and state-issued devices, citing security threats.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to crowd of 200 voters Saturday at a town hall event held at the Horizon Events Center in Clive.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to crowd of 200 voters Saturday at a town hall event held at the Horizon Events Center in Clive.

"This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have," Haley, 51, told Ramaswamy, 38. "And … honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."

Haley in recent weeks has jumped in national polls and is now neck-and-neck with Ramaswamy, who has long held third place behind former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

6 takeaways from second GOP debate: Rivals call out Trump's absence, claw each other

The question now is whether Haley can overtake DeSantis for the No. 2 spot and take down Trump, who despite facing 91 felony charges has remained well in front in the 2024 GOP presidential race.

A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted in mid-August revealed that 42% of likely Republican caucusgoers have named Trump as their first presidential choice, with DeSantis trailing him at 19% and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott at 9%. Only 6% of likely Republican caucusgoers selected Haley as their first presidential choice – tying with Pence.

Des Moines resident Craig Clark wants to know whether Haley or DeSantis will take on an "unpopular position because they believe it's right." The 60-year-old, who was among the dozens of voters at Haley's town hall event Saturday in Clive, said he has his eye on Haley and DeSantis as alternative presidential candidates to Trump.

Clark, a Republican voter, told the Des Moines Register he voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election and chalked up the support that he has now to "sympathy." How that support holds up as the Iowa Caucuses draw near is yet to be seen, he said.

Sebastien Porsenna, 30, of Des Moines, is facing the same dilemma. Porsenna said he's "torn" between Haley and DeSantis, and he likes both for different reasons.

Porsenna said he values Haley's experience as a former U.N. ambassador and knowledge of foreign policy. He also values DeSantis' military experience. And he thinks both candidates are well-spoken and carry out their stances.

"These are the things that are like a tug of war," said Porsenna, a Republican voter. "On Caucus Day, my decision will be a gameday decision. Anything could happen from now through January. (I'm) keeping my eyes open, my ears open and allowing that process to play out."

At least for now, Porsenna said he's inching toward Haley. He told the Register he had the chance to meet Haley and speak with her after the town hall event and the small interaction they had made a difference.

"I already liked her a lot. If my like for her was a nine, it bumped up to 9.2," he said.

When asked how Trump fits into his decision, Porsenna said he would be inclined to vote for him again as president if he "hears me." But, Porsenna added, Trump "has a lot of competition on his hands."

But Mark Rowley, of Urbandale, said it's tough to pick Trump again. He's a "child and calls people names. (I) never liked that about him."

After the debate on Wednesday, the Trump campaign released a newsletter titled "The Real Nikki Haley," outlining the issues he said she has "flip-flopped" on during her presidential campaign run.

The following day, Trump took to the social media platform Truth Social and launched into a tirade against his opponents, calling Haley a "birdbrain" and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "sloppy" and "a Trump deranged lunatic."

Trump continued to bash Haley in a follow-up post and said: "MAGA, or I, will never go for Birdbrain Nikki Haley. No loyalty, plenty of lies!" Haley responded with a screenshot of the insult and posted it on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, and said: "Love this. It means we are in 2nd and moving up fast. Bring it."

On Sunday morning, after the town hall event, Haley took to X again, posting a picture of a "message" she received from the Trump campaign. Outside her hotel room, Haley said she found a birdcage and a small bag of bird food.

Haley, who was a U.N. ambassador during the Trump administration, is among the presidential candidates who have rarely spoken out about the former president. Amid her usual stump speech, she has publicly criticized Republicans, including Trump, Pence and Scott, for contributing to the national debt. She has also called out Trump and DeSantis for minimizing the war in Ukraine to "territorial disputes."

Only recently at a town hall in Grand Mound did Haley answer a voter who pressed her on how she felt about her former employer.

"I don't agree with Trump 100% of the time. I don't disagree with him 100% of the time. That's the same way I feel about my husband," she said. "What I will always tell you is the truth."

On the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, Haley kept her thoughts brief: Trump "thinks January 6 was a beautiful day. I think it was a terrible day. I hope that never happens again."

At the town hall in Clive, 73-year-old Paul Havnen said he likes Trump. And if he's named the Republican presidential nominee to go up against President Joe Biden, Havnen said he would vote again for Trump. But until that happens, Havnen told the Register he wants Haley.

"I think it's time for new blood," Havnen, of Des Moines, said.

Havnen said he watched Haley's debate performances and thought she was "brilliant" and "feisty."

Those traits were put on full display Saturday as Haley fielded questions from attendees, including two hecklers who disrupted her stump speech and asked her how she felt about singer Taylor Swift.

The off-beat question didn't derail Haley, who quipped back to one of the men in a stern voice: "Can we get through this, and then you're welcome to ask a question after?"

She later found an opportunity to share a lesson and humor out of the situation.

"Remember how blessed we are that we have freedoms. My husband's a combat veteran. They fought for us to have that. So, whether he wants to talk about Taylor Swift or not — God bless him. He's got the right to ask," Haley said, who began her Q&A by telling the audience she does like Swift's music.

Havnen told the Register he agrees with her stance on securing the southern border and boosting mental health services for Americans. Havnen said he believes Haley could bring in younger voters and voters of color.

"We need somebody in office that isn't undergoing an impeachment or lawsuits," he said. "You just need a fresh start and bring the country together."

F. Amanda Tugade covers social justice issues for the Des Moines Register. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @writefelissa.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Donald Trump sends Nikki Haley a birdcage after Republican debate