New deputy leader of the National Party Nikki Kaye doesn't think her boss holds the same views as US President Donald Trump, despite having a 'MAGA' hat on display at his office.
Todd Muller took the reins of the party on Friday, but rather than spend the first weekend introducing himself to the nation, the relative unknown found himself defending his ownership of the iconic red hat. Many see the hat - frequently seen worn at far-right protests - as an icon of white nationalism, sexism and other negative traits associated with Trump and his administration.
"We can't ignore the substance behind MAGA and how terrifying it is if that shrill bullying ethos becomes casually mainstream in NZ politics," Green MP Golriz Ghahraman tweeted on Sunday, one of many shocked a Prime Ministerial hopeful would not only own a MAGA hat, but have it on display.
Muller told Newshub Nation it was just a souvenir from his trip to the US in 2016, where he attended rallies for both the Republican and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
"I got one of those, and I got a Hillary Clinton badge,' he said. "I've got them both in my office. But for some reason, the Hillary Clinton badge never gets looked at. Everyone sees the MAGA cap and somehow reaches a conclusion that perhaps is where my sympathies lie."
Further eyebrows were raised on Sunday when he told Magic Talk's Sunday Cafe "both sides" in the US were responsible for the growing partisanship in US politics - echoing a phrase Trump used in 2017 after a white nationalist killed a left-wing activist in a protest in Charlottesville, Trump saying there were "very fine people" on "both sides" of the confrontation.
Asked on The AM Show if she liked Trump, Kaye said while she respects "the office of the President", she doesn't agree with "all of Donald Trump's views".
Asked if the former reality TV star - who once boasted his fame allows him to grab women "by the p***y" without consequence - is sexist, Kaye declined to answer.
"I'm very conscious of the role that I'm in and actually from my perspective I respect the role of President. Sure, some people will say [he's sexist]. I don't want to cause any diplomatic issues by criticising the President of the United States on one of my first days as deputy of the National Party."
As for Muller's MAGA hat, she said her boss is "absolutely focused on how we rebuild the country, not on hats".
"I don't believe he [endorses Trump's views]. I think Todd is absolutely focused on rebuilding New Zealand, and we shouldn't read too much into souvenirs on his desk."
In comments published by NZME on Monday morning, Muller appeared to toughen his stance on Trump, compared to his statements at the weekend.
"I've been asked directly, do I support President Trump's style, and I say 'not at all'. I find his style of politics appalling... My collection of political paraphernalia doesn't in any way seek to align myself to any particular political positioning of any individuals offshore."