Congress

Senate confirms wealthy GOP donor, McConnell friend as UN ambassador

Kelly Knight Craft, current envoy to Canada, has come under harsh criticism from Democrats

Kelly Knight Craft was confirmed Thursday as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After seven months without a permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations and at a time of increasing turbulence in global affairs, the Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed a new ambassador, a Republican Party fundraiser whose thin diplomatic résumé has come under harsh criticism from Democrats.

The confirmation vote, 56-34, of Kelly Knight Craft, who currently is U.S. ambassador to Canada, came hours after Senate Foreign Relations Democrats published a report that harshly criticized her suitability for the role. The report asserted she was “unknowledgeable” about basic U.S. foreign policy issues and likely to be “outmatched” by her U.N. counterparts from Russia and China. It also lambasted her long record of unexplained absences during her time as envoy in Ottawa.

“During her limited diplomatic tenure, her unacceptable absences in Canada were nothing less than a dereliction of duty,” Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez said in a statement. “Never in our nation’s history have we nominated such an underqualified person to this critical post.”

Craft spent nearly 60 percent of her time as ambassador outside of Canada, which amounted to 357 days, according to the report.

[U.N. pick asked why almost half her days as Canada’s ambassador were spent elsewhere]

Though Republicans defended much of that away time as being related to her role as part of the U.S. negotiating team for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Democrats said only 40 of her travel days were related to trade meetings. Rather, she spent seven months in Kentucky or Oklahoma, where she and her billionaire husband, Joe Craft, have homes. The Democrats also noted she spent at least 29 days staying at the Trump International Hotel during her trips to Washington.

The eight-page report was compiled from news reports, travel records (including flight logs), calendars, Craft’s testimony to the committee and other official documents that Menendez requested and received.

Democrats criticized Craft for a weak Senate Foreign Relations confirmation performance.

“When asked about the most pressing issues the U.N. faces and how the United States can leverage the U.N. to pursue our national foreign policy priorities, Ambassador Craft did not mention the major crises or complexities facing the United States today,” the report states. “When asked about the two-state solution, which has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, she could not articulate a coherent or succinct viewpoint.”

Prior to her confirmation as ambassador to Ottawa, Craft ran a small marketing firm, Kelly G. Knight LLC, and served for one session as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations, a largely ceremonial position. She has been a longtime GOP fundraiser, including for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and her husband has donated considerable sums to the Republican Party.

[Trump nominates GOP fundraiser Kelly Knight Craft for UN ambassador]

Republicans defended her record as ambassador to Canada. They also noted she previously sailed through her Senate confirmations as ambassador to Canada in 2017 and as U.N. delegate in 2007, both by unanimous consent.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn called Craft a “well-qualified nominee” who had demonstrated “her tact and diplomatic skills” in helping to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It’s safe to say it’s been a dynamic time during our relationship with our neighbor to the north, a fact that made Ambassador Craft’s job all the more important,” Cornyn said in floor remarks earlier this week. “She helped build consensus on this agreement … and won friends from both countries in the process. We heard glowing endorsements from many of those people.”

Democrats faulted Craft for not knowing at her confirmation hearing the full extent of her and her husband’s holdings in oil and gas interests, which they said could represent a conflict of interest for any U.N. climate change-related activities. Her husband leads Alliance Resources Partners, the second-largest coal producer in the eastern part of the country. While she was ambassador, her husband sat in on several of her official meetings with energy and oil company executives, according to the minority report.

In contrast to Craft’s largely partisan confirmation vote, her predecessor, Nikki Haley was confirmed as U.N. envoy in January 2017 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 96-4.

Like Craft, Haley came to the position with little hands-on foreign policy experience. However, Haley impressed many Democrats in 2015 when as South Carolina governor she persuaded the state Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol. She also turned in a strong and reassuring performance at her Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing. As ambassador, she pushed for modest changes to the U.N. bureaucracy that resulted in slightly lower U.S. dues and successfully muscled through multiple tough Security Council sanctions measures against North Korea.

And unlike Haley, Craft is not expected to have a Cabinet-level position within the administration, which places her firmly beneath Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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