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President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was pressed at her confirmation hearing on why she was away from her current post as envoy to Canada for more than 300 days since taking the job in October 2017.
Kelly Craft, a prominent donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that she was frequently working on the road and that the U.S. embassy in Ottawa was always staffed in her absences. She also said her travel was preapproved by the State Department.
Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, said he had “deep reservations” about Craft’s “lack of qualifications for such a complex and challenging role” and demanded a breakdown of where Craft went during her time away from Ottawa. While donors to presidential campaigns regularly get plum diplomatic jobs, the UN post historically goes to people with extensive government or foreign policy experience.
“Historically, U.S. ambassadors to the UN have brought significant executive experience, or experience working directly in foreign policy,” Menendez said.
Read More: Trump Donor Craft Faces Climate-Change Hurdle to Get UN Posting
Craft pushed back on questions about her experience, saying she would have a “very deep bench” at the UN and vowing to be available “24/7” if confirmed to replace former Ambassador Nikki Haley, who left in December. Republican Senators Johnny Isakson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all sought to defend Craft’s absences.
“I would say you would be a poor ambassador indeed if you went to your office in Ottawa and locked the door,” said Cruz.
Asked about her priorities at the UN if confirmed, Craft said she would focus on human rights and promised to confront Russia over issues where the two nations disagree. In a shift from previous statements that cast doubt on evidence for climate change, Craft — whose husband Joe Craft is the chief executive officer of a coal company — came out quickly in her opening statement to declare that “climate change must be addressed.”
Later in the hearing, she said “I do believe fossil fuels do play a role in climate change.” She also said she’d recuse herself from issues at the UN involving coal.
In a powerful sign of Republican support for her nomination, Craft was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a family friend from her home state. Barring unexpected revelations, Craft’s nomination is expected to be approved by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate, both controlled by Republicans.
Craft, 57, is Trump’s second pick to replace Haley. The president’s initial choice, former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, withdrew from consideration in mid-February after the White House learned that she previously employed an immigrant nanny who entered the country legally but wasn’t authorized to work.
While Craft wasn’t a central player in crafting Trump’s overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement, people who followed her work in Ottawa say she was effective in quietly smoothing ties during a volatile diplomatic period as the U.S. and Canada renegotiated a key trade agreement.
“She kept her head down and did her job at a time when the U.S. administration was not very popular in Canada, and in a sense she’s acquired thick skin for her next job,” said Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa who has met with Craft.
Craft’s nomination hearing came the same day that a United Nations expert assigned to investigate the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents in Turkey recommended probing the possible role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a conclusion that could complicate the kingdom’s efforts to smooth over ties with Western allies.
Read More: UN Expert Calls for Probe of Saudi Prince’s Role in Killing
When pressed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia on Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, Craft said she would speak up when the kingdom commits abuses. “You better believe I will be using my voice,” she said.
The kingdom has repeatedly denied the crown prince played any role in the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul or knew it was about to take place. Graham disputed that denial in the hearing.
“Who in their right mind would put us in this box?’’ Graham said during the hearing. “He did it! Wouldn’t have happened without him. He knew it was going to happen. He wanted it to happen. He caused it to happen.’’
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