President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, who is also a close friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was chided Wednesday by a senior Senate Democrat for the “excessive” time she spent away from her current post as ambassador to Canada.
Kelly Knight Craft, a longtime Republican Party fundraiser and business consultant from Kentucky whose billionaire husband’s fortune comes from the coal business, does not have the diplomatic resume typical for envoys to the U.N. But her friendship with Kentucky Republican McConnell virtually guarantees her confirmation.
Even so, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez indicated he would use discrepancies and gaps in Craft’s official travel record to draw out her confirmation process until he gets further information from the State Department.
“You spent an excessive amount of time absent from Ottawa, leaving your duties to deputies,” the New Jersey Democrat said at her confirmation hearing. “I find the staggering amount of time away from post very troubling and an abdication of leadership.”
Menendez noted his office learned she was away more than 300 days from Oct. 23, 2017, to June 19, 2019.
According to a Democratic Senate aide, who was not authorized to be named, Craft was in Canada for only nine days during one 54-day period from March 21 to May 13, 2018, during which time she attended a University of Kentucky basketball playoff game in Atlanta. And during the month-long government-shutdown at the beginning of the year, she was at the Ottawa embassy for just one business day.
“Some of those trips you listed as official travel … while being home in Kentucky, and there is additional travel that you appear to have taken that is not reflected in the information you provided,” Menendez said. “For example, there are several instances where you posted social media messages from places other than Canada although there is no record of you traveling.”
Craft said she would provide Menendez’s office with “complete records” of the time she spent away from Ottawa, including State Department cables approving her travel requests. She also defended her travel as necessary for her role on U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s team negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
“Little did I know that I would be living out of a suitcase during the trade negotiations, whether it was in Montreal, or Washington,” she said.
Craft’s travel away from Ottawa continued even after the NAFTA-follow on trade talks concluded, according to Democrats.
“In the eight months since the negotiations ended, she spent an average of 20 days a month outside of Canada,” the Democratic staffer said.
Craft received backing from Republican senators such as Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, another longtime friend.
“I don’t know where it was … but it was in the best interests of the United States,” Isakson said of her travel. He further noted his job frequently necessitates being away from Washington. “My duty to my duty station and to my country is to be wherever the job’s requirements take me.”
Sen. Marco Rubio said Craft was saving taxpayers’ money because she did almost all of her official travel in her family’s private jet.
Craft, who has spent the past year-and-a-half as the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, was officially nominated for the U.N. post last month, though the White House announced its intention to do so in February.
The U.S. has not had a permanent ambassador at the U.N. since Nikki Haley stepped down late last year. In that time, several geopolitical hotspots have grown more treacherous, particularly Libya, Sudan and Venezuela.
The extended absence of a confirmed U.S. ambassador at the U.N. has led to a deterioration of U.S. interests there, particularly on the Security Council, said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, in a Tuesday op-ed for Politico.
“U.S. negotiators often lack clear instructions from Washington on how to handle sensitive issues, or only get guidance at the last moment due to turf wars over policy inside the Trump administration,” he said. “Security Council talks on issues like the war in Yemen make little progress as U.S. diplomats are unable to state clearly what Washington wants, leaving their foreign counterparts uncertain how to proceed.”
When Menendez asked Craft what her top diplomatic focus would be if confirmed, she said she would focus on humanitarian issues and human rights abuses.
“I see pressing issues as any issue that involves innocent people throughout the U.N. system, throughout the world that are being abused,” the ambassador said.
Menendez responded while he shared her sympathies, he would expect the nominee to be U.N. ambassador to have listed such concerns as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, a destabilized Libya, a rising China and ongoing threats from Iran.
“Those are minimally some of the hotspots in the world right now,” he said.