Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft

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Trump’s ‘influential’ pick for ambassador to Canada faces Senate hearing

Kelly Knight Craft donated $265K to Trump campaign committee in 2016

By Matt Kwong, CBC News Posted: Jul 20, 2017 5:00 AM ETLast Updated: Jul 20, 2017 9:27 AM ET

U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for the next ambassador to Canada, a deep-pocketed Republican donor with influential allies in Congress and family ties with a Kentucky coal empire, faces her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

Kelly Knight Craft will testify before the Senate committee on foreign relations in a joint session with Trump’s nominees for ambassador to NATO and the U.K.

Craft and her husband, billionaire coal-mining magnate Joe Craft, donated about $265,000 to a committee backing Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. She announced her support for Trump after getting assurances that he wouldn’t bump House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell from their roles.

Maryscott Greenwood, who is the senior adviser to the Canadian American Business Council and knows Craft personally through mutual friends, calls her nomination a “terrific” choice.

kelly knight craft UN

Craft addresses the United Nations about U.S. engagement in Africa in 2007. President George W. Bush chose her as an alternate delegate to the UN. (Courtesy of Glasgow Daily Times)

Craft “brings a Southern charm that Gordon Giffin and David Wilkins also had,” she said, referring to two previous ambassadors to Canada.

“She’s quite impressive. Canadians will see that when they get a first chance to hear her in her own words.”

With more than $700 billion in two-way trade of goods and services between Canada and the U.S., along with issues regarding cross-border security and energy, “the deeper our ambassador’s connections with policy-makers, the better able she is to navigate this huge, complicated relationship,” Greenwood said.

Those connections with the White House and key members of Congress could prove very beneficial to Canada, experts say, particularly as Ottawa braces for U.S. tax reform and “Buy American” rules for a $1-trillion infrastructure plan that could lock out Canadian firms.

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David Wilkins was a close family friend of George W. Bush when he was appointed ambassador to Canada. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

“The importance of the ambassador, really, is how close to the administration is she or he?” said Derek Burney, Canadian ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1993.

“She must have the confidence of the president to get this appointment. And if she has the ear of the president, that’s good for us.”

Her appointment would come at a crucial time. On Monday, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released a blueprint of objectives for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Formal talks are scheduled to begin Aug. 16.

It’s in the interests of Canada and the U.S. to have that “point person” on site as soon as possible, said former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson.

“The ambassador acts as the quarterback in the field. With the release of the U.S. objectives for NAFTA, it’s very important that the Americans have an ambassador in Ottawa that can feed back into the United States the reaction of the Canadians.”

Joe Craft

Craft, right, with her husband, Joe Craft, a billionaire coal-mining magnate who has criticized former president Barack Obama’s climate policies. (Courtesy of Glasgow Daily Times)

One potential area of tension for Craft in Canada’s capital could be her strong links to the coal sector, said Elliot Tepper, a distinguished senior fellow with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa.

“What’s clear is that her interests in regard to the coal industry are in sync with the American administration, but out of sync with the Canadian government at the moment,” Tepper said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced plans last November to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030. Meanwhile, Trump has pledged to revive coal jobs in the U.S.

Craft’s husband is the CEO of Alliance Resource Partners LP, one of the largest coal producers in the eastern U.S. He has questioned the science and dangers of climate change, diverging from Canada’s position.

But Tepper said such factors are mitigated by the fact Canada has already gone through a six-month period of adjustment with its primary strategic and diplomatic trading partner.

‘Quick and without controversy’

Potential political differences with Canada aside, when lawmakers question Craft at Thursday morning’s joint session, her testimony should go smoothly, aided by a Republican majority on the committee.

Hearings for the Canadian ambassador post are typically “quick and without controversy,” following some warm remarks and introductions, said Robertson, who attended the hearings for former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins.

“I suspect all the ducks are lined up and her hearing will go quickly, and that she’ll be confirmed early next week,” the former diplomat said.

Craft previously ran a marketing consulting firm. In 2007, she was appointed as an alternate to the United Nations by President George W. Bush, advising on U.S. engagement in Africa.

U.S. ambassadorships to Canada are considered plum postings, typically not awarded to career diplomats but to key fundraisers who have the confidence of the president and may be well connected in Washington.

Wilkins, a South Carolina lawyer, was a top Republican donor and close family friend of George W. Bush. The most recent ambassador, Bruce Heyman, helped raise more than $1 million for Barack Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2011 and 2012.

Bruce Heyman

Bruce Heyman, a Barack Obama appointee, resigned as ambassador to Canada back in January because Trump wanted to name his own ambassadors. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Heyman resigned on Jan. 20, heeding Trump’s State Department instructions for ambassadors to clear house by inauguration day so he could name his own envoys.

While Craft has been active in philanthropy and also served on the University of Kentucky’s board of trustees, Tepper said little is known about her diplomatic or political skills.

“We know that she’s influential. What we do not know is if she has the requisite communication and diplomatic skills,” he said. “That will be tested during the confirmation hearings.”

Kelly Knight Craft

Donald Trump chooses Republican fundraiser as ambassador to Canada, Bloomberg reports

Craft is a top Republican fundraiser in Kentucky, where she hosted a $5,400-per-couple event for Trump.

Kelly Knight Craft raised money for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Trump, hosting a $5,400-per-couple fundraiser for Trump in June and later serving as a finance vice-chair for his inaugural committee.
Kelly Knight Craft raised money for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Trump, hosting a $5,400-per-couple fundraiser for Trump in June and later serving as a finance vice-chair for his inaugural committee.  (Courtesy University of Kentucky)  

WASHINGTON—Kelly Knight Craft, a wealthy Republican fundraiser and campaign supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, is poised to become the next United States ambassador to Canada – and the first woman to hold the post.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that Craft, a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations under George W. Bush, had accepted Trump’s offer of the position.

She is best known as one of the top Republican fundraisers in Kentucky. Craft has raised money for Bush, Mitt Romney and Trump, and hosted a $5,400-per-couple fundraiser for Trump in June. She later served as a finance vice-chair for his inaugural committee.

Craft, who is in her 50s, is the wife of Joe Craft, the billionaire chief executive of Alliance Resource Partners, a large Kentucky coal producer.

Bush chose her as a “public delegate” to the U.N. delegation in 2007, a short-term role often given to political donors. She is a member of the board of trustees of the University of Kentucky, her alma mater, and sits on the board of directors of the Salvation Army in Lexington.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said the appointment – if confirmed – bodes well, showing that Trump picked not just a loyalist, “but somebody he thinks would suit Canada and suit (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau.”

Indeed, Trump and Trudeau have launched a joint initiative to help female entrepreneurs and business leaders, something the president highlighted in his prime-time speech to Congress Tuesday.

Trudeau responded Wednesday to Trump’s shout-out, saying he was pleased with the efforts on this front. “It highlights one of the things we are very much in alignment on, the need to get more women into the workforce and have women get better jobs,” Trudeau said Wednesday when asked about Trump’s speech.

Robertson said that Craft’s time at the United Nations and her interest in Africa, all play well to Canadian priorities.

“This strikes me as quite a thoughtful appointment in terms of finding somebody who would fit well into Canada,” he said in an interview.

And he said Craft’s husband is also a good fit, with his expertise in business and energy.

“People say, ‘well, it’s coal.’ Look, it’s energy . . . He’s a businessman and the fact he knows the energy trade, I think that’s a good thing,” Robertson said.

Craft’s apparent selection puts to rest rumours about the possible selection of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the idiosyncratic right-wing firebrand.

Craft would have to be approved by the U.S. Senate, a process that is usually a mere formality but means the post will be vacant for some time yet.

The news came on the same day Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau visited Washington to meet with their U.S. counterparts and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna spoke by telephone with Scott Pruitt, administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Morneau, making his third trip to Washington since Trump took office, held his first meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They talked about infrastructure and the “importance of tax reform,” including the proposal for a U.S.-imposed border tax that could hit Canadian imports, Morneau told reporters later.

“We didn’t go into any details on that as they don’t yet have details that they could communicate,” he said in a conference call.

Morneau said that without a firm proposal on the table, he did not voice Canada’s position to the tax.

“At this stage, without details, it’s not a time for us to express support, or opposition, or, even, insights, into the impact on the Canadian economy,” he said.

Craft has rarely made the news outside of brief Kentucky mentions of her fundraising work.

The Crafts met with Trump at his Trump Tower office in New York in the spring. They told Bloomberg that Trump’s promise not to try to oust House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is from Kentucky, was a key factor in their decision to back him.

In a rare news quote, Craft said she knew was putting her credibility at stake by collecting money for Trump.

“When someone gives us a cheque, we’re looking at that as they’re investing not only in that candidate . . . they’re investing in us, and I take that as a responsibility. I don’t take that lightly. We feel responsible to them,” she said.

The U.S. ambassadorship to Canada is regularly given to an ally of the president, often a wealthy fundraiser, rather than a career diplomat. Barack Obama’s last ambassador was former Goldman Sachs executive Bruce Heyman, who became a fixture on Ottawa’s social scene.

By tradition, Heyman left the diplomatic posting when Trump took office in January.

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