A Republican Rainmaker Comes to Turtle Bay
If confirmed, Kelly Knight Craft would be the first U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who got started in politics as a campaign fundraiser and donor.
For Kelly Knight Craft, the path to the top ranks of American diplomacy has been paved with political contributions. And if she’s confirmed as President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Craft will be the first campaign donor to occupy such a senior role.
Craft and her husband, the Kentucky coal baron Joseph “Joe” W. Craft III, contributed $2 million to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and inauguration. They have doled out donations to the campaign coffers of many of the Republican senators who will likely confirm her nomination next month. When the Crafts call, Republican political leaders listen.
Kelly Knight Craft, 57—the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Canada—is a symbol of the shifting power dynamics in Washington in the age of Trump, a period in which America’s donor and lobbying class have emerged from behind the scenes to lead some of the country’s key political and diplomatic institutions. Her nomination also follows a pattern in the Trump White House of appointing envoys to the U.N. with little to no experience in multilateral affairs. Trump’s previous choice, former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, withdrew her name from consideration amid reports that she hired a foreign babysitter without proper working papers.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have handed out plum ambassadorships in the past to wealthy donors, but some jobs, like the U.S. ambassador post at Turtle Bay, have been reserved for political and diplomatic heavyweights—from past presidential candidates like Adlai Stevenson and future President George H.W. Bush, who no doubt had experience raising funds themselves, to distinguished and seasoned diplomats like Thomas Pickering and Richard Holbrooke.
That is no longer the case.
To her critics, Craft’s 18-month-long tenure as ambassador to Canada has been undistinguished, to say the least—even though U.S.-Canada relations have been fraught with tensions during the Trump era. They have described her as an absentee diplomat who frequently traveled to Kentucky and made little effort to get to know ordinary Canadians.
“I would say Kelly Craft, we hardly knew ye,” said Andrew Cohen, a Canadian columnist who has written several books on Canada’s relations with the United States. “She is the least visible, least consequential ambassador in my memory, and I’ve known every U.S. ambassador over the past 20 years.”
Ahead of her confirmation hearing, Senate Democrats are planning to press Craft on her views on climate change, raise concerns about potential conflicts with her husband’s coal interests, and question her on women’s access to sexual reproductive health services. The United State has been seeking to scale back international funding at the U.N. for such services, contending that they support abortions. Critics of the U.S. stance contend that the United States is undermining desperately needed health programs for women, particularly in poor countries. Democrats are scouring Craft’s Twitter feeds and flight records to explore complaints that she spent too much time as ambassador to Canada flying on a private jet to Kentucky to attend Kentucky Wildcat games, the Kentucky Derby, and awards ceremonies for her husband. Craft primarily travels by private jet, which she pays for, according to an advisor.
“It appears she has spent an abnormal amount of time away from her post, which is unusual, to put it lightly,” said a congressional aide.
Conventional wisdom would have it that Craft, who will lack the cabinet rank granted to her predecessor, Nikki Haley, will exert little influence with a national security team led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has close personal ties to the president, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, a proactive former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who views the multilateral institution with disdain.
But her foreign counterparts are banking on her ability to call in favors from some of Washington’s biggest power players, from Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime friend and political ally who joined Craft in Canada last week, to Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, whose own political rise has been fueled in part by Joe Craft’s coal dollars. He personally recommended her for the role.
“The fundraising she has done will give her access to pretty much anyone who is important in the Republican Party,” said Sarah Goldfeder, a former State Department official who served in the U.S. Embassy in Canada until 2015. “Mike Pence will put down another phone call down to take her call.”
Democrats concede that Craft would likely be confirmed, though not before facing tough questions on her controversial statements on climate change—she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that she saw merit on “both sides of the science”—and the potential for conflict of interest for a nominee whose political rise has been fueled by millions of dollars in campaign contributions.
Joe Craft has long had deep ties with key Republican players, including Scott Pruitt, a fellow Kentucky native, who fought to deregulate the fossil fuel industry as Environmental Protection Agency chief before he was forced to resign under a cloud of ethics violations. The two men met seven times during Pruitt’s first 14 months in office, according to the New York Times. Both Trump and McConnell opposed a decision earlier this year by the Tennessee Valley Authority to shutter the Paradise #3 and Bull Run coal-fueled power plants in Kentucky and Tennessee because they were no longer economically viable. Craft and another coal magnate, Bob Murray, also opposed the move.
The first, and perhaps most difficult, hurdle Craft faces to clinching the job is a nomination hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she’ll face a panel of Democratic senators who are skeptical of her thin resume and haven’t hesitated to block other key State Department appointments with concerns over the nominees’ backgrounds or political tussles with the White House.
In an early shot across the bow, three Democratic senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, pressed Craft earlier this month to clarify her position on climate change, allay any concerns about any conflicts of interest between her government role and her family’s energy holdings, and detail her family’s relations with Pruitt.
“Given your family’s business relationship with Alliance Resource Partners, the third largest coal-producing company in the Eastern United States, where your husband serves as President and Chief Executive Officer, we need assurances that, in connection with U.N. activities related to climate change, you will put the nation’s interest ahead of your own personal financial interests,” the senators wrote in a May 3 letter to Craft.
Her nomination is being shepherded by powerful Republican lawmakers, State Department and White House experts, and a former White House spokesman serving as an unpaid advisor, Raj Shah, who are all seeking to bolster what the congressional aide described as a “thin” diplomatic resume. The State Department dispatched a senior advisor from the Bureau of Legislative Affairs on an extended visit to Ottawa to prepare Craft for her nomination, according to a State Department official.
Haley is also said to be providing informal advice to Craft. A top Haley advisor, Jon Lerner, recently wrote an op-ed recommending the White House reverse its decision to deny her cabinet ranking. Diplomatic experience, he wrote, is “vastly overrated” for the challenges facing the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
“Her deep pockets and serious connections with people like Mitch McConnell are putting her nomination on steroids,” said the congressional aide.
On the Republican side of the Foreign Relations Committee, she’ll face a warmer welcome, including from members of the committee whose election campaigns she helped bankroll. Craft and her husband together gave $5,400 to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 Senate primary and general election campaigns, according to filings from the Federal Election Commission reviewed by Foreign Policy. They also gave $2,700—the maximum amount of money individuals can donate under federal election regulations—each to the Senate general election campaigns of Indiana Sen. Todd Young and Ohio Sen. Ron Johnson that year. Craft and her now-husband, before they were married, also served as Kentucky finance chairs for Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid in 2012. Romney, now a Utah senator, is one of the newest Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joining Rubio, Young, and Johnson.
Mastering U.N. diplomacy, which requires familiarity with a slew of complex international crises, can be a challenge for even the most experienced diplomats. Craft will face a steep learning curve just to learn the basics. Her skills as a negotiator and debater will be tested by some of the world’s most talented diplomats, including envoys from rival countries such as China and Russia that are dedicated to undercutting U.S. influence on the world stage.
“For many of our global partners and competitors, multilateral diplomacy has gotten the best and the brightest,” said Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The crème de la crème go to the U.N. post.”
Despite her thin resume, Craft wouldn’t be flying blind if she were confirmed. James Cunningham, a former career diplomat who served as deputy permanent representative to the United Nations from 1999 to 2004, said the success of U.N. ambassadors hinges a lot on their staff. “On paper, she doesn’t have the classical background for this. But it’s a place where she’ll have a lot of expert support and probably a good staff around her,” Cunningham said. He also said political prowess and relationship-building can be just as important for the job, if not more so, than a long history of diplomatic experience.
Still, Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who helped build an international coalition that expelled Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, suggested that Craft’s inexperience could damage U.S. credibility. Her “inability to remark sensibly on climate change,” he said, will be interpreted by U.N. colleagues in New York “as amateur hour.”
France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, said he hoped Craft will serve as “a bridge between Washington and the U.N. at a time when we more than ever need an America that is engaged with the U.N. in world affairs and committed to our shared values, beginning with human rights.”
In advance of her confirmation hearing, which is expected to begin on June 19, State Department and National Security Council officials have been preparing her for a tough grilling. That effort involves a review of potential business conflicts of interest to determine whether Craft will have to recuse herself from any government business.
U.S. officials intend to highlight her behind-the-scenes supporting role in advancing trade talks with Canada, which were led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and pushing Canada to increase contributions to NATO and strengthen sanctions against Russia. They also say that she had played a substantive role earlier this year in rallying international support through the Lima Group—which includes more than a dozen nations in the Americas—to promote the legitimacy of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela.
Craft will face a range of potential crises including the U.S. approach to the U.N. summit on climate change in September; a potential fight in the Security Council over the Middle East peace process, where Palestinian allies may press for a resolution endorsing a two-state solution; and North Korea, where the resumption of missile tests could set the stage for a council standoff in the summer. Meanwhile, relations between the United States and its key allies, the U.K. and France, have been strained over a broadening menu of differences, including climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. More recently, Washington has clashed with its European allies over Libya and Yemen. She will also inherit massive U.S. debt to the U.N., with U.S. arrears set to surpass $1 billion by next year, its highest number since Holbrooke negotiated the debt down in 2000 with the help of tens of millions of dollars loaned from CNN founder Ted Turner.
“We foresee a very hot summer in terms of U.S.-U.N. relations,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group. Gowan said “there is a reasonable likelihood” that the United States will find itself in a new round of political fights over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, predicting that Arab governments will be under enormous pressure to push for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution “reaffirming the two-state solution, and forcing the U.S. to veto.” The White House’s top Middle East negotiator, Jared Kushner, had hoped to release his long-awaited peace plan sometime in June, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had won reelection. But Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition government may delay the plan’s release, injecting a fresh element of uncertainty into U.N. deliberations.
Trump’s nominee began life as Kelly Guilfoil, growing up on a farm in Glasgow, Kentucky, the daughter of Bobby Guilfoil, a veterinarian who had once served as the chairman of the Barren County Democratic Party. Craft graduated from Glasgow High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, where she would later serve as a trustee. She has two daughters: Mia Moross, from her first marriage to David Moross, the CEO of a private equity firm, and Jane Brady Knight, from her second marriage to Judson Knight, whose name she retained after their divorce.
Early on, Craft made a name for herself as a Republican fundraiser.
Before her marriage to Joe Craft, Kelly Knight had emerged as a powerful figure in establishment Republican circles in Kentucky, serving as the state’s co-chair for the Republican fundraising effort during George W. Bush’s successful 2004 presidential campaign and Kentucky state chairwoman of Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid.
“She is a titan when it comes to Kentucky politics,” said Les Fugate, a Republican political consultant who worked with Craft in support of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. He said that she has moved easily between rival factions of the Republican Party, from establishment Republicans like McConnell to candidates such as Bevin from the state’s Tea Party wing. “If you’re a politico of some sort on the Republican side you want her behind you,” Fugate said.
But Craft’s national profile was boosted by her embrace of Trump during the 2016 campaign. Early supporters of Rubio’s presidential campaign, Craft and her husband jumped on the Trump train shortly before he won the Republican nomination—but not before exacting some concessions.
Following a meeting with Trump at Trump Tower, Craft said that she and her husband had made it clear that their financial support depended on his commitment to not try to oust Republican leaders McConnell and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. “That is a big priority for Joe and I—and from talking directly to Donald Trump I know for a fact it is a big deal to him,” she said, according to Bloomberg. “He made that very clear.”
Craft’s only foreign-policy experience before Trump sent her to Canada as U.S. ambassador consisted of a short stint during the George W. Bush administration as the alternate representative to the U.N. General Assembly, a largely symbolic post awarded to political donors and loyalists. Her tenure as U.S. representative in Ottawa thus provides the clearest test of her skills and style as a diplomat.
After her confirmation, Craft posed a slickly produced video on Facebook that detailed her life story, from her early days on the farm, her first trip to Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and her love of sports, particularly the Kentucky Wildcats and the Toronto Raptors.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I go to Ottawa is lace up my running shoes and go for a run,” she said. “I just can’t wait to experience the Canadian outdoors and meet as many people as I possibly can.”
Craft has had a lower profile than her predecessors, who cultivated relationships with influential Canadian journalists and made an effort to be seen in public. Craft’s defenders say her frequent travels to the Kentucky were the natural product of maintaining a long-distance marriage and that she stayed in contact with key Canadian and U.S. government players when she was away from Ottawa.
“She didn’t stop being Joe’s wife,” said Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood, a former U.S. diplomat who heads the Canadian American Business Council. “I think part of it is just that Joe wants her to come to some things.”
The travels have also promoted Kentucky’s trade interests in Canada. Craft has hosted visits by prominent Canadian officials, including Canadian Minister for Public Safety Ralph Goodale, who attended a meeting with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in 2018.
“We see many more Canadian officials in Kentucky since she took over the ambassador ship,” said Fugate, noting that Craft’s diplomatic work has fueled rumors that she might be positioning herself for political office in Kentucky.
“I don’t know how much the average voter knows that Kentucky even has the ambassador to Canada, but she has a huge profile inside [Republican] political networks,” he said.
Greenwood and other observers say that Craft made the most out a managing delicate U.S.-Canadian relations for a president who makes policy on the fly, without consulting his advisors, and who routinely insults foreign heads of state. During a particularly contentious stage of trade negotiations last year, Trump belittled Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak” and voiced his disdain for the negotiating style of Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, declaring “we don’t like their representative very much.”
Craft has faced the challenge of representing a U.S. president who is deeply unpopular in Canada and who is known to upend settled U.S. policy with a late-night tweet. “The risk of being contradicted by the president is pretty high,” Greenwood said. “The better course of valor is to keep your mouth shut.”
Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this story.