Kelly Knight Craft, Donald Trump’s pick to be the next United States ambassador to the United Nations, raised eyebrows in her June 19 Senate confirmation hearing by putting some space between her views on global climate change and those of the president.
But Trump needn’t worry that she might end up threatening her boss’s ostrichlike approach to the climate crisis. She told the panel weighing her nomination, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that Washington was reducing its human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and didn’t need a worldwide deal like the Paris Agreement to demonstrate its global leadership.
Knight Craft, who is married to the coal billionaire and Republican Party megadonor Joseph Craft III, became an overnight Internet sensation when she was asked, upon arriving in Ottawa in October 2017 to begin a stint as Washington’s ambassador to Canada, whether she believed in climate change. “I believe there are scientists on both sides that are accurate,” she answered in an awesome display of diplomatic finesse.
This time around, she was better prepared for the question.
“Climate change needs to be addressed, as it poses real risk to our climate. Human behavior has contributed to the changing in climate, let there be no doubt,” she told the Senate panel. Out went the headlines!
She went on, however, to make clear that in her opinion, the burden was not on the US government to do anything about it but on all those other countries.
“We withdrew from the Paris Agreement because we feel like we don’t have to be part of an agreement to be leaders,” Craft said. In that assertion, she appeared to be relying on an April 2019 report from the Trump Environmental Protection Agency showing a 14 percent drop in human-generated greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2017.
What she did not mention was that experts believe that trend has since reversed itself, and US emissions resumed rising in 2018.
In line with Trump’s re-election aspirations, Knight Craft said that UN reform — that is, saving taxpayers money — would be her top priority as ambassador. She also pledged, if confirmed, to step up US humanitarian efforts, including those aimed at women. That meant, she said, improving health care for women and girls, doing a better job of protecting women’s rights and reinforcing their role in UN programs for community stability and peace and security.
She choked up as she told the committee of meeting for the first time in a senator’s office a Rohingya woman, who embraced her and told her she was counting on Knight Craft to help her.
“I commit that I will be an advocate for women’s issues and making certain that we really highlight women and children and young girls so that they too can be strong women and be leaders in their communities and their countries,” Knight Craft said, noting that she, like committee member Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, was a mother and a grandmother.
Knight Craft also promised, if confirmed, to meet with the head of the UN Population Fund after Shaheen insisted there was no evidence the agency supported forced abortions in China; Trump withdrew $32 million from the UN fund in 2017 over the abortion issue. But Knight Craft made no response to Shaheen’s plea to end US attacks on breast-feeding, as the Trump administration did at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this spring.
Some committee Democrats questioned Knight Craft’s qualifications for the job; she has served as ambassador to Canada for less than two years and won that job primarily because she and her husband have donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates over the years, including $2 million to Trump in 2016.
“Let me be frank: I have deep reservations about your lack of qualifications for such a complex and challenging role,” Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, told her. “The American people need someone with tenacity, experience and a deep understanding of the complexities of global affairs and international institutions, who is committed to multilateralism and reforming and strengthening the United Nations, not irreparably damaging it” — like Trump, he added.
Menendez, citing State Department figures, said that Knight Craft had been away from her post in Ottawa more than 300 days during her 21 months as ambassador. A day before the hearing, Politico reported, based on Federal Aviation Administration data, that she made 128 flights between the US and Canada on her husband’s private jet during 15 months of her time in Ottawa, the equivalent of a round trip once a week. Many trips were to her home state of Kentucky.
“I find this staggering time away from post very troubling and an abdication of leadership,” Menendez said.
Knight Craft said she had a talented team of fellow US diplomats backing her up in Ottawa, fully carrying on their work in her absence. She added that she had spent considerable time away from Ottawa working on delicate trade negotiations with the Canadian government. But the State Department told Menendez she had attended just one of the five rounds of talks on the US-Canada-Mexico trade deal that took place during her watch. (Knight Craft also complained to the panel several times about “living out of a suitcase” as ambassador to Canada.)
Nonetheless, committee members were generally supportive of her nomination and no one said they would vote against it. “We put the travel issue well behind us here,” Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said.
Trump administration critics predict that Knight Craft, if confirmed, will have little power and influence in the administration because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, both pushy and outspoken, will eclipse her. Unlike her predecessor, Nikki Haley, who left the administration at the end of 2018 for life in the private sector after less than two years as UN ambassador, Knight Craft will not enjoy Cabinet status.
But she stated loudly and clearly that she did not wish to second-guess the president. Her job was to reflect his policies and nothing more, even when she was asked to comment on Trump’s practice of insulting other world leaders.
“I am going to be advocating the policies of this administration,” she said, responding to a question from South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
“I have sharp elbows, it will be easy,” she answered when Graham asked her whether she would be an able advocate.
She showed some spunk, however, when talking about Russia and China. While Trump has played both hot and cold on Moscow and Beijing, at times appearing to actively woo Russian President Vladimir Putin, Knight Craft portrayed them as nefarious rivals.
Washington must work hard to balance China’s growing influence at the UN, she warned, trying to sound ominous.
As for Moscow, “I am not going there [to the UN] to be Russia’s friend,” she said. “They are not our friend. They undermine us at every opportunity that they have, and you better believe I will keep a clear eye on them in understanding where we can work together . . . or other areas that we need to call them out on.”
Critics say that her extensive involvement in the fossil fuel business will weaken her effectiveness in climate change talks at the UN. Her financial disclosure forms showed she personally owns more than $63 million in oil, gas and coal assets, according to Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey. Her husband, moreover, is president and chief executive of Alliance Resource Partners, the second-largest coal producer in the eastern US. He is also a member of the executive committee of the National Mining Association.
She filed an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics in May, acknowledging her husband’s lofty status in the coal business and pledging to recuse herself from personally participating “in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect” on her financial interests.
Under the agreement, she would need a written waiver from the State Department to work on such matters. But under questioning from Markey, she said that so far this agreement would apply only to her coal holdings and not necessarily to other “fossil fuel” holdings. The State Department was still working on this question, she said. (PassBlue first reported in March 2019 on her financial investments and possible conflict of interest as US envoy regarding climate change debates in the UN.)
Her commitment to working on climate change through the UN remains iffy. “If confirmed, I will be an advocate for all countries to do their part in addressing climate change,” she told the hearing. “This does not mean in my view that the United States should imperil American jobs or our economy as a whole by assuming an outsized burden on behalf of the rest of the world. However, it does mean that we should promote the creativity and innovation that have made the United States a leader in tackling the challenges of our environment,” she said.
On at least one issue, she showed genuine zeal, vowing, like Nikki Haley, to vigorously protect the interests of Israel, which she said was “the subject of unrelenting bias and hostility in UN venues.”
Asked by Senator Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, whether the Trump administration had ended US support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — envisioning two states living side by side in peace — Knight Craft responded with more praise for Israel and no mention whatever of the word “Palestinian.” She added that she had not seen the peace deal proposed by the Trump administration.
“I have not been part of the Middle East peace process, but if confirmed I will tell you there will be no stronger friend than Kelly Craft and the United States for Israel and no stronger person to promote Israel in normalizing themselves in the system,” she said.
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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.