Report

Dems Grill Trump’s U.N. Nominee Over Ottawa Absences

Kelly Knight Craft spent about half her tenure as ambassador outside Canada, data shows. She says much of it was work travel.

Kelly Knight Craft, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, testifies at her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on June 19.
Kelly Knight Craft, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, testifies at her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on June 19. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez came armed with a giant calendar mounted on poster board and spotted with red and white blocks. The red blocks marked the days Kelly Knight Craft was absent from her current job in Ottawa as U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy to Canada.

“I find this staggering amount of time away from post very troubling and an abdication of leadership,” Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the Wednesday confirmation hearing for Craft’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Menendez and other Democrats questioned whether Craft could handle the demands of the post at the U.N. “It’s an extraordinary number of absences,” he said.

Craft insisted much of her travel was for work related to grueling trade negotiations between the United States and Canada, and the State Department approved all travel. Her assertions were backed up by Republicans on the committee, who lauded her hard work.

In all, Trump’s U.N. nominee spent approximately half of her 20-month tenure as U.S. ambassador to Canada outside of the country she was assigned to, fueling charges from Democratic lawmakers that she was insufficiently engaged in her job. In just over 600 days in office, she was gone over 300, according to State Department data provided to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In one period between March and May in 2018, she was in Ottawa only nine out of 54 days.

Republican lawmakers rallied to her defense, saying that her travel often included trips to Washington, D.C., for official business, including U.S. trade talks with Canada as part of negotiations for a joint trade agreement with Mexico. They noted that she paid for her own travels on a private jet, saving U.S. taxpayers a significant chunk of change in commercial air tickets.

“You prioritized the top priority of this administration,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Menendez’s presentation was part of a broader effort by Democratic lawmakers to question Craft’s fitness as a relative diplomatic neophyte to take up the important U.N. post in New York.

If confirmed, Craft would be the first member of the political donor class to become ambassador to the United Nations, a job normally reserved for seasoned statesmen and women to spar with top diplomats deployed to Turtle Bay from Beijing and Moscow. “Let me frank: I have deep reservations about your lack of qualifications for such a complex and challenging role,” Menendez told her.

Despite Democrats’ reservations, there was no sign that Craft’s confirmation was in serious peril, as the Republican lawmakers hold a 12 to 10 majority in the committee.

Craft characterized her jet setting as more of a burden of the job than a series of vacations. Her travel, she told the committee, centered on the grueling trade negotiations between the Trump administration and Canada over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

“I did not enjoy living out of a suitcase. … That was not fun,” she said. “This was not a time to socialize. This was a time to work.”

But a review of Craft’s Twitter feed showed that some of her trips were to her home state of Kentucky, where she attended the Kentucky Derby, University of Kentucky Wildcats sporting events, and awards ceremonies honoring her husband’s many philanthropic achievements.

Craft entered her confirmation hearing with broad support from Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentucky native, who introduced her to the committee as a “distinguished stateswoman and leader.” He said he is “confident our nation will be proud of the fine service she will render as our ambassador to the United Nations.”

Like McConnell, several Republican members of the committee received campaign donations from her and her husband, the billionaire coal executive Joseph Craft III.  

Despite Republican support for her nomination, the hearing underscored the depths of congressional disquiet over the Trump administration’s policies on a range of issues, including the prospect of military conflict with Iran, the administration’s approach to climate change, and White House support for Saudi Arabia after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Republican Kentuckian who pledged to support her nomination, tried to prod her into addressing his concerns about the perils of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, citing the violence and chaos that followed the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. He also voiced concern about a new war against Iran.

“As much of the problems we have with Iran, I think we have as many or more with Saudi Arabia—they chopped up a dissident with a bone saw,” Paul said. “Who spreads more jihadism and hatred of Christians and Jews and Hindus around the world? The Saudis by far.”

She was also pressed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Khashoggi after a U.N. report released on Thursday found “credible evidence” linking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top Saudi officials to his death.

“We will follow this investigation where it takes us,” she said. She added: “I will use my voice when Saudi Arabia commits human rights abuses—you better believe it. I will use my voice.”

Another sticking point for the Democrats was Craft’s views on climate change. Craft called it a “real risk” to the planet when pressed by Democrats. It was an apparent breaking with the president’s own climate change skepticism, though she defended Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate change pact. She also told Democratic Sen. Ed Markey she would bow out of U.N. discussions on climate change involving coal given her family’s financial stakes in the industry.

“Where there is the issue of coal and or fossil fuels, I will recuse myself in meetings,” she said.

That marked a distinct turn for Craft, whose husband owns one of the nation’s largest coal companies. Last year, Craft ignited political controversy by saying she respected “both sides” of the climate change debate.

At one stage of the hearing, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney noted that Joe Craft had been sitting behind his wife at the hearing “so long, and so uncomfortably” as she expressed her shifting public position on climate change and embraced the view that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the climate’s warming—though she leavened the remark by underscoring the need to balance the needs of the environment with those of industry.

“I may have to ask for a ride home after this,” she joked.

Craft’s responses on climate change took some of the sting out of efforts by Democratic lawmakers to portray the former Republican fundraiser as a captive of big coal.

Before her pledge, Markey said he sent her a letter in May expressing concern over her conflict of interest in any U.N. discussions on climate change. He said he only received her written response on the matter at 9:59 a.m. on Wednesday, about 15 minutes before the hearing started.

Craft also took tough questions from Democratic lawmakers over the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Population Fund and administration opposition to U.N. resolutions advocating support for sexual reproductive health programs. The U.N. agency, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said, plays a vital role in supporting women’s health programs in conflict areas and poor countries, noting that it provides Venezuelan hospitals with training on the delivery of babies.

Pressed by Shaheen, Craft agreed to meet with the executive director of the U.N. agency and revisit allegations that it works with Chinese outfits that promote coercive abortions in China. Those allegations helped to justify the U.S. decision to withdraw from the agency.

“I have asked multiple representatives from USAID to the State Department about these reports, and I have seen nowhere any evidence that any partnership exists bet UNFPA and supporting programs in China that require abortions for women,” Shaheen said.

To counter the tough lines of questioning from Democrats, Senate Republican leadership collected praise and plaudits for Craft’s work in Ottawa from former senior U.S. and Canadian envoys and blasted them out to reporters—a small indication of how important Craft’s nomination was to Republicans. “Her charm and tact was a healing balm, and her intelligence and competence made her highly respected across the country,” Frank McKenna, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, said in a statement.  

David Wilkins, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush, said she “served our country exceedingly well” and “handled sensitive files while forging important inroads working with Canadians.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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