UNITED NATIONS — Kelly Knight Craft will soon head to the United Nations as U.S. President Donald Trump's envoy, where she will have to prove to skeptics that she is up to the task.
Craft, 57, was confirmed by a slim majority that split along mostly partisan lines in the U.S. Senate earlier this week.
The Kentucky native is married to Joe Craft, a billionaire coal executive, and they are well-known in Republican circles as major donors. In addition to contributing $1 million to Trump's 2016 campaign, they have also supported several Republican senators.
As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Craft will follow in the footsteps of heavyweight diplomats, including Thomas Pickering, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, as well as one U.N. ambassador — George H.W. Bush — who went on to become president.
Envoy to Canada
A businesswoman and philanthropist, Craft had her first serious foray into international diplomacy over the past two years as Trump's envoy to Canada, where she was part of the effort to get a new North American trade agreement.
At her June confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the ranking Democrat voiced his concerns about her lack of experience.
"The American people need someone with tenacity, experience, and a deep understanding of complexities of global affairs and international institutions; someone who is committed to multilateralism, and reforming and strengthening the U.N., not irreparably damaging it," Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey said. "I have deep reservations about your lack of qualifications for such a complex and challenging role. Historically, U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. have brought significant executive experience, or experience working directly in foreign policy."
Republicans were not as concerned.
"I think by any reasonable measure you're a very qualified person," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Craft. "You've been ambassador to Canada. If you're qualified and not crazy, you usually get my vote. You don't seem to be crazy at all — other than wanting to come here, maybe."
Craft assured the committee that she has "sharp elbows" and would not be deterred in speaking up in the face of human rights abuses by allies such as Saudi Arabia, or in confronting adversaries.
"You know, I'm not going there to be Russia's friend," Craft said. "They're not our friend. They undermine us at every opportunity that they have. And you better believe I will keep a clear eye on them and understanding where we can work together, whether it's North Korea or other areas that we need to call them out on."
Absences from job
Democrats also criticized Craft for her substantial absences from her post during her time in Canada — more than half the days she was posted there — and on her family's connection to the coal industry. Achieving carbon neutrality and slowing global warming are among the U.N.'s top priorities, and Craft assured the senators that she would recuse herself on fossil fuel issues when they come up at the United Nations.
"Craft doesn't have a strong history in multilateral diplomacy, but that was also true of her predecessor, Nikki Haley," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group. "I think expectations for Craft are low, but actually she may be able to win friends amongst U.S. allies at the U.N. if she is willing to work in a collegial fashion."
Gowan noted Craft's connections with "people who matter" in the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and some Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee.
"If she wants to push important policy issues, she does have a lot of people she can call in Washington who will feel obligated to listen to her," Gowan said.
Craft will not hold Cabinet member rank, like several of her Republican predecessors, such as Haley, and she is unlikely to have as big a policymaking role as Haley.