The Senate has confirmed Kelly Knight Craft to be Washington’s top ambassador to the United Nations, even as a key Democrat pronounced her “unfit to serve.” The move ends a seven-month vacancy in one of the country’s most senior diplomatic posts.
The July 31 vote on Craft’s nomination was 56 to 34, with 5 Democrats joining 51 Republicans in registering their approval: Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. No Republican opposed Craft.
Addressing the Senate before the vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, warmly praised her for “skillfully and effectively advocating for the interests of the United States on the international stage” while in her previous role as America’s ambassador to Canada, a post she held for just 21 months.
“As she stands for this new role, she brings the ringing endorsement of peers and counterparts she engaged all along the way. She has done the job very well,” McConnell said.
But Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top-ranking Democrat, voted against her confirmation, declaring her “unfit to serve” for three main reasons: she lacks the necessary experience to defend American values and national security, she was absent from her post in Ottawa for so long that it amounted to “a dereliction of duty” and she was “unable or unwilling to convince the Senate that she will fully separate her professional obligations from her family’s business interests,” he said.
The committee had approved Craft’s nomination by a vote of 15 to 7 on July 25, after a one-day hearing on June 19. Three Democrats — Shaheen, Murphy and Chris Coons of Delaware — joined all 12 of the panel’s Republican members in voting to send the nomination to the Senate floor.
Menendez said he had expected to vote for Craft but ended up voting against her. “Let me be frank: I have deep reservations about your lack of qualifications for such a complex and challenging role,” he told her.
The US ambassador to Canada is often a ceremonial post set aside to reward big political donors. Craft and her husband, the billionaire coal magnate Joseph Craft III, have given millions to Republican candidates over the years, including a number of Foreign Relations Committee members, President Trump and McConnell, who had pressed Trump to name Ambassador Craft to the UN post. It has been vacant since the resignation of Nikki Haley at the end of 2018.
“It would seem that her most relevant credential is that she, along with her husband, contributed more than a million dollars to the president’s campaign,” Menendez said on the Senate floor. “Simply put, never in our nation’s history has a president nominated such an underqualified person to this critical post for just being a donor.”
During the 608 days she was assigned to Ottawa, Knight Craft was out of Canada for 357 of those days, Menendez said; she had spent 210 of those days — more than a third of her total time on the job — on 43 separate trips either to her family home in Kentucky or to her husband’s place in Oklahoma, he added.
“I think it is very fair to say that if an international crisis erupts, we might more likely find her in Kentucky than in New York City,” Menendez said.
Joseph Craft is the president, chief executive and director of Alliance Resource Partners, the second-largest producer of coal in the eastern US, with about 1.7 billion tons of reserves in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He owns about a billion dollars in stock in Alliance and other energy-related firms and is also on the executive committee of the National Mining Association.
The Crafts, since marrying in 2016 — he’s her third husband while she is his second wife — have tirelessly pushed a pro-coal agenda since Trump took office, despite its deadly impact on the environment and the health of billions of people worldwide. She told the Foreign Relations Committee that an ethics agreement with the government would require her to obtain State Department clearance to participate in UN meetings on climate change that could affect the value of their coal holdings. But she said it was not clear whether the restriction applied equally to meetings involving “fossil fuels.”
She has been hard to pin down on her precise view of climate change, most recently seeming to adopt the opinion that it exists but doesn’t require much attention from Washington.
Menendez said Knight Craft had shown “a lack of diligence” in mixing family and official business. He said that e-mails and calendar records showed she had asked her husband rather than her staff at one point while in Ottawa to get official information from Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who later lost his job over lax ethics. Responding to the query, the EPA staff cc’d Joseph Craft, who comes from the same Oklahoma town, Tulsa, as Pruitt.
Joseph Craft also participated in at least four meetings that Kelly Knight Craft held while in Ottawa with US or Canadian energy or environmental officials, Menendez said.
In response to the grilling she got during her Senate nomination hearing in June, Knight Craft frequently displayed a talent for dodging a straight answer while not outright lying.
Dancing around the facts is a skill that could serve her well as a UN ambassador. Unfortunately, her gift seemed more aimed not at dazzling diplomacy but at avoiding unpleasant truths while not looking uninformed.
Knight Craft, for example, told the committee that she had worked hard in Canada, and “I did not enjoy working out of a suitcase.” Wherever she traveled, negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement had been her top priority, she insisted. “This was not a time to socialize but a time to work.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went further, suggesting that much of her time away from Ottawa might have been spent traveling inside Canada rather than gallivanting around the US. A beaming Knight Craft said nothing to discourage that view.
But Menendez later clarified for Cruz that only days spent “outside of Canada” had been counted as days spent away from her post. As for the trade talks, Knight Craft attended just one of the five rounds of talks that took place while she was ambassador, Menendez noted. Knight Craft insisted that on top of that one round, she had also spent time in trade “discussions” in Washington.
Here are other moments during the nomination hearing when she deftly dissembled:
• A casual listener might have concluded that in answer to a question, Knight Craft pledged to increase US contributions to various UN-affiliated humanitarian aid agencies and programs. In fact, she proclaimed only that other nations must also do their part.
“I will also take a focus on expanding the pool of resources available to the humanitarian network and pushing the agencies to maximize the impact of those on the ground where the need is greatest,” she said. But while Washington has “long been the world leader of humanitarian aid . . . I also believe other responsible nations can and must do more to contribute their fair share and I will make the point very firm and frequently.” She would also turn to unspecified “public-private partnerships” to drum up additional contributions, she added.
• Ambassador Knight Craft ducked extremely low when Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky asked if she agreed with Trump’s assessment of the 2003 Iraq war as a giant geopolitical mistake.
“If confirmed, I will support his policies,” she said. “I won’t second-guess the president’s policies.” (Did she mean Trump’s or George W. Bush’s?)
• When Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who is concerned Trump might one day soon invade Iran, asked Knight Craft whether she believed such an invasion would require a congressional vote of approval in advance, she equivocated.
“I believe that we need to show deterrence,” she said. “Consultations” with Congress were important, but in case of an imminent threat, “the president makes that decision,” she added.
But, Young asked, what if there is no imminent threat? “I agree we need to be consulting with Congress,” she said, dodging the question of a vote.
• The president is constantly making “disparaging comments about UN member states,” Menendez noted, asking Knight Craft, “Do you agree with those statements?”
“The president has his own way of communicating,” she responded.
“I’m aware of the president’s way of communicating,” Menendez pressed on. “Do you believe in those statements, yes or no?”
But Knight Craft would not take the bait. “This is a gotcha question and I am not going to go there,” she said.
Menendez would not leave the question alone, telling Knight Craft that she would have to regularly deal with the fallout from these kinds of comments in her work as ambassador and encouraging her to say she does not personally believe in such characterizations.
“I can assure you I will be speaking to everyone with the utmost respect in representing the United States,” Knight Craft 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.