Trump’s UN ambassador pick Kelly Craft grilled on her 300 absences as Canada envoy

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Kelly Craft, Trump’s pick to be next UN Ambassador, at her confirmation hearing on June 19, 2019.

Craft sounded very unlike a future Trump administration official in a hearing, promising to prioritize humanitarian aid and tackle climate change.

United Nations ambassador nominee Kelly Craft appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing Wednesday, and while she praised the UN as a “vital institution,” much of the hearing was spent examining her record as the US’s top diplomat in Canada.

Craft has served as the US ambassador to Canada since September 2017. But Politico reported Monday that she was “frequently absent” from her diplomatic post in Ottawa. Flight records obtained by Politico showed Craft took 128 flights between the US and Canada in a 15-month period, which comes out to about a flight per week.

Democrats pressed Craft on her absences, with Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), saying State Department records show Craft had been absent for more than 300 days between October 23, 2017, and June 19, 2019.

“That’s an extraordinary number of absences,” Menendez said, using a calendar marked in red to note the number of days Craft was reportedly away from Canada. Menendez said those days were listed as official travel, but Craft was in Kentucky — her home state — on some of those days. He asked Craft to turn over additional records to address the discrepancies.

Craft defended her record, saying that her travel had been approved and that her frequent trips were related to negotiating and promoting the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), the updated version of NAFTA that was negotiated during her tenure. “I did not enjoy living out of a suitcase,” she told Menendez at one point during the hearing.

Top Republicans came to Craft’s defense during the hearing over the issue of her travel.

“The bottom line being, it was not possible for you to both be in those negotiations with USMCA and also at some ceremonial event at some third country embassy at the same time, you had to make a choice, and in those cases, you prioritized the top priority of this administration with regards to our relationship with Canada,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said during the hearing.

The concern over Craft’s absences in Ottawa was legitimate, as she’s being nominated to the US’s top diplomatic post and the bulk of her foreign policy experience comes from her nearly two-year stint in Canada. Craft is married to a Kentucky coal magnate, who also happens to be a major GOP donor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed Craft’s nomination for the UN post, and he testified on her behalf on Wednesday — a reason her nomination likely will won’t face any real opposition.

Craft’s hearing didn’t exactly convince anyone that she had detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the UN — for example, she downplayed the US’s decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council last year, saying she could advocate for human rights through the UN Security Council, though that body often deals with different priorities.

At the same time, she repeatedly made clear she believed in the mission of the United Nation. In her opening statement, Craft said she would prioritize reform at the UN and “bolstering humanitarian efforts.” She championed the UN’s role in providing humanitarian aid, and said she would focus on expanding resources for aid as the world deals with crises in Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. She also promised to stand up to malign actors in the international body — most notably Russia and China.

Craft also praised the UN as “a vital institution that is at its best when free nations jointly contribute to its missions around the world.”

This praise wouldn’t normally be a remarkable statement. But given the Trump’s administration’s disdain for the UN and other multilateral institutions, Craft’s cheerleading of the UN will likely appease skeptical Democrats — even if Republicans can advance her nomination without bipartisan backing. And it may appease some of America’s allies, too.

Who is Kelly Craft?

Trump announced his plans to name Craft to the UN post in February after a snafu with his original nominee, Heather Nauert. But his administration only submitted Craft’s name to the Senate in May, finally moving to fill a top diplomatic position that has been open for months.

If confirmed, Craft would replace Nikki Haley, who left the post at the end of 2018 after nearly two years on the job. Jonathan Cohen, a career diplomat who became Haley’s deputy in June 2018, has served as acting UN ambassador since January 2019.

Haley, during her tenure, managed to strike a balance between Trump’s “America First” worldview and a more traditional Republican foreign policy. The former South Carolina governor had also demanded that the US ambassador to the UN role remain a Cabinet-level position while she held the role. But it likely will not remain that way if Craft takes over — which could potentially diminish her influence within the administration.

Craft is a major Republican donor who became US ambassador to Canada

Craft was unanimously confirmed by voice vote to be the US ambassador to Canada in August 2017, but her nomination to UN ambassador was bound to be a bit more contentious.

Here’s what she has going for her: In addition to that prior Senate endorsement, Craft, who hails from Kentucky and whose husband is a major coal magnate, has a key ally in her corner. She’s got the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which would seem to bode well for her nomination’s chances of approval.

But she also likely got her posting as US ambassador because she was a major donor to GOP causes as well as Trump’s campaign. In 2016, Craft donated more than $260,000 to the campaign; her husband, Joe Craft, donated about $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Both she and her husband were Kentucky state finance chairs for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

Presidents — Democrats or Republicans — often appoint donors and other supporters to cushy ambassadorship gigs. But the high-profile UN ambassador role tends to be a job for experienced officials or those with deep foreign policy or diplomatic credentials.

Craft did serve as part of the US delegation to the UN under President George W. Bush in 2007. And she has gained experience during her tenure as ambassador to Canada, where she played a role in helping to negotiate the USMCA.

Craft got herself into a bit of trouble early in her tenure over comments she made about climate change, in which she said there were “good scientists on both sides” of the climate debate during an interview with a Canadian news outlet in 2017.

Combating climate change is among the UN’s major goals, and during her hearing, Craft walked back these comments by telling the committee she believes human behavior and fossil fuels have contributed to a climate change. “Let there be no doubt: I take this matter seriously, and if confirmed, I will be an advocate for all countries to do their part in addressing climate change,” Craft said.

Craft also agreed to recuse herself from any UN discussions that involve coal and climate change at the UN, given her family’s coal connections.

If confirmed, Craft will step into the role and immediately face a slew of international challenges, including refugee crises in places such as Myanmar, Syria, and in several parts of Africa including the Central African Republic and South Sudan; political turmoil in Libya and Sudan; and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen due to a Saudi-backed civil war.

Craft will also have to deal with the reality that the US is increasingly isolated on issues from the environment to migration to even health and gender initiatives. And while Craft said she was a “firm believer” in the UN, she’ll be advocating for an administration that views multilateral institutions — the UN included — with a strong degree of suspicion.

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