It’s easy to figure out why Donald Trump picked Kelly Knight Craft to be his ambassador to the United Nations.
She and her husband, Joseph Craft III, a billionaire coal baron, showered the president and his Republican Party with millions in campaign contributions in 2016. (A business consultant before she became a diplomat, she’s his second wife and he is her third husband; they married in 2016.) Since then, they tirelessly pushed Trump’s pro-coal agenda —despite its deadly impact on the environment and the health of billions of people around the world.
The president rewarded the couple with a string of regulatory victories for big coal and then named Kelly Knight Craft the American ambassador to Canada. He can presumably count on the couple to keep pouring money into Republican coffers in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
For Trump, what is there not to like? His effort to pump new life into the coal industry is driving up the Crafts’ already vast wealth, enabling them to spend more on Republican politicians and, incidentally, on their frequent stays at the Trump International Hotel, their Washington base. This is the very definition of a symbiotic relationship.
Insiders say Knight Craft was nominated to the UN job partly because she had won Senate confirmation before, when she was appointed ambassador to Canada. The Canada job is a diplomatic post typically given to big campaign contributors, but the UN post has until now been reserved for more highly skilled and experienced individuals. (The White House told PassBlue it was sending her nomination paperwork to the Senate most likely at the end of March.)
Knight Craft is nonetheless likely to win Senate confirmation again. Her generous support for the Republican Party is obviously one big factor, as is the fact that she was recommended for the job by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an old friend of the couple’s whose campaign has benefited along with Trump from their largess. (Knight Craft is originally from Kentucky, where her father was an active Democrat.)
Some people might see her coal wealth as a potential conflict of interest at the UN, where the debate over climate change rages in many parts of the system.
But Republicans appear to love coal out of all proportion to its impact on the environment and economy, its clear contribution to climate change and to the illnesses, injuries and deaths suffered by miners.
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive,” Trump tweeted in November 2012. It seems he still believes this.
During his 2016 campaign, the president asked coal miners to support him, promising to revive an industry that suffered deep job losses as environmental restrictions made coal more expensive, cheaper natural gas flooded the country and mines closed. Clearly, the miners’ employers also stood to benefit from such policies.
Almost immediately after he took office, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency began rolling back environmental and health protections from the Obama era and before. In June 2017, he announced that Washington would pull out of the Paris agreement aimed at slowing climate change.
These actions and others are now encouraging mining companies to dig faster and utilities to keep burning coal rather than switch to cleaner, less destructive power sources. And coal prices have crept upward in the last few years.
But only a few countries around the world reject the idea that coordinated international action is needed to reverse climate change, and the UN, which aims to guide these international efforts and monitor the science that supports it, stands firmly behind the Paris agreement.
So given her history, Knight Craft is likely to feel the heat when she shows up for her new job in Turtle Bay. Can she handle it?
Soon after arriving in Ottawa as the US ambassador, in October 2017, she took a big hit on Twitter when she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that she respected both the science supporting climate change and the “science” clung to by deniers.
“Well, I think that both sides have, you know, their own results from their studies, and I appreciate and respect both sides of the science,” she said, speaking a few months after Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Asked flatly whether she believed in climate change, she answered, “I believe there are scientists on both sides that are accurate.”
But despite the, umh, err, great diplomatic tact displayed by those remarks, no one really expects Knight Craft to start praising the Paris agreement or dissing hydrocarbons. The Crafts are too closely tied to Big Coal, Trump and the Republican Party.
The Crafts donated about $2 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign and his inauguration and shelled out large sums that year to numerous other GOP candidates and state and national party committees. Knight Craft took turns signing her contribution disclosure forms as “homemaker,” “consultant” and “philanthropist.”
And perhaps partly as a result of that generosity, Joseph Craft played a crucial personal role in pushing Trump to take the steps to make him and his associates much richer.
Joseph Craft is the president, chief executive officer and director of Alliance Resource Partners, a publicly traded diversified producer of coal. According to its annual report, his company began mining in 1971 and has since grown through acquisitions and internal development into the second-largest producer in the eastern US, with about 1.7 billion tons of reserves in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Joseph Craft is also a member of the executive committee of the National Mining Association. In April 2017, he invited Scott Pruitt, then the EPA administrator, to meet with the trade group’s executive committee in Naples, Fla., and lay out his concerns about the Paris agreement.
The committee voted the next day to call for Washington to withdraw from the deal, lending momentum to such a move when the coal industry and the Trump administration were both divided on the way forward.
Days later, Craft arranged for Pruitt, who was later forced from the EPA over concerns about his lax ethics, to meet and mingle informally with his own company’s board of directors in a private dining room at the Trump International Hotel.
Continuing the apparent bromance, Pruitt in October 2017 flew to Hazard, Ky., Joseph Craft’s childhood hometown, to announce the EPA’s decision to repeal its Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era policy to curb power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. Craft was in the audience. His company insists Alliance gets no special treatment from the Trump administration.
According to an April 2018 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Joseph Craft owns or controls 44,773,040 shares of Alliance Resource Partners, worth more than $900 million at the March 8, 2019, market price.
His holdings are listed right alongside Kelly Knight Craft’s investments on the 2018 financial disclosure form she had to file with the State Department and the Office of Government Ethics as ambassador to Canada. Together, the pair’s investments, as listed in the official form, take up 13 pages and include holdings in 54 different energy companies, ranging in value from less than $1,000 to more than $1 million. (Such forms provide only a range of value for each asset rather than a specific value, for example, “$50,001-$100,000,” or “Over $1,000,000.”)
Among the largest energy holdings listed besides Alliance and related entities are: Concho Resources Inc., an oil-exploration company ($500,001- $1,000,000); Continental Resources Inc., an oil and gas firm ($500,001- $1,000,000); WKY CoalPlay LLC, coal reserves (over $1,000,000); Pioneer Natural Resources Company, shale oil ($250,001- $500,000); and Magellan Midstream Partners, pipelines ($100,001- $250,000).
Because of the structure of the standard financial disclosure form, a solid estimate of the Crafts’ net worth is hard to pin down, but a good guess would be $1 billion to $1.2 billion; Forbes estimated Joseph Craft’s net worth at $1.4 billion in 2012, including assets he shared with his ex-wife, Kathy. Craft fell off the Forbes list of billionaires in 2013 as coal prices slumped and producers began closing mines, a trend that appeared to reverse itself around 2016.
The Crafts’ coal wealth and generous support of Republican candidates may be just one of many reasons Trump is likely to continue to pursue his campaign commitment to ease restrictions on coal mining and burning. But the overall result will clearly be more erosion of international hopes that Washington will reverse course and contribute to global efforts to slow if not arrest climate change.
And a starring role in the story will be played by a president who for the first time awards the prize post of UN ambassador to a major campaign donor with a billion-dollar energy portfolio rather than a wise and skilled diplomat versed in foreign affairs.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.