A Kentucky native who has been a major donor to the GOP and to Trump, Craft will be the fourth woman in a row to hold the post. She most recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Canada, her only diplomatic experience besides a largely ceremonial role as an alternate delegate under former president George W. Bush.
She drew strong criticism for her frequent absences that took her away from Ottawa for almost a year of her two-year tenure, sometimes to weigh in during negotiations to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement but often for personal trips.
Critics say her lack of experience makes her ill-suited for a job that is second in prominence only to the secretary of state, particularly in such challenging and perilous times.
Craft arrives as the world body confronts multiple problems — Iran’s step-by-step pullback from the 2015 nuclear deal after the U.S. withdrawal, North Korea’s missile launches, Venezuela’s hunger crisis under the Maduro government and concern over civilian casualties in Yemen, where Washington backs a Saudi-led bombing campaign.
This year’s General Assembly will be dominated by growing alarm over climate change, an issue for which the White House’s hands-off approach has been as isolating as Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal last year.
Craft is up to the task, her allies say.
“She did a tremendous amount of studying before she left here to acquaint herself with the various subjects she will face in New York,” said Nimrod Barkan, the Israeli ambassador to Canada who became friends with Craft in Ottawa. “She knows there’s a lot of studying to be done. But the State Department will help, sending people who are experts to advise her. In this case, it’s teamwork that counts, more so than one person.”
Craft will be serving a president who often has shown disdain for international organizations and multilateral agreements. But she says both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have distinguished between “international tools that serve their intended purpose from those that have lost their way.”
“I do think it is fair to say that this administration is applying new levels of scrutiny to the U.N. and other bodies to assess their effectiveness against the billions of dollars provided by the American taxpayer,” Craft said in a written response to questions after her spokesman declined an interview request.
“Looking ahead, I plan to remind the other nations of the U.N. that the United States isn’t going anywhere,” she added. “As we demand more of the U.N., and more equitable burden-sharing among members, we will also continue to press for real action to advance human rights, women’s empowerment, health and wellbeing, etc.”
The U.S. ambassador the United Nations tends to be first among 193 equals, and Craft has spent her first few days on the job making the rounds to introduce herself.
Some analysts say Craft could be out of her depth dealing with the experienced diplomats that most countries send to U.N. headquarters.
“Everybody who’s ever met Kelly likes her,” said Andrew Cohen, a Canadian columnist who has never met her and has been highly critical of her tenure in Ottawa. “But she starts at a disadvantage because she’s the least qualified permanent representative the United States has ever sent to the U.N.”
Craft was raised in Glasgow, Ky., where her father, a veterinarian, and mother were active in Democratic politics. Their daughter became a GOP activist. She and her then-boyfriend, Joe Craft III, were state co-chairs of Mitt Romney’s campaign. Her husband since 2016, Joe Craft heads one of the nation’s biggest coal companies, Alliance Resource Partners, and ranks among the wealthiest Americans.
The Crafts have donated large sums to Republican candidates and committees at the national and state level, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recommended her as ambassador. The Crafts also gave $2 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign and his inaugural committee.
Before Trump appointed her to Canada two years ago, Craft’s only other diplomatic experience was as an alternate U.N. delegate in 2007, a position considered ceremonial.
Her time in Ottawa brought mixed reviews. She drew criticism for saying in a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. interview that she respected “both sides” in the climate change debate. But Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood, head of the Canadian American Business Council, said Craft tried to avoid saying anything to inflame sentiments during sensitive talks on replacing NAFTA. Craft rarely gave interviews after that first awkward one.
“She did a bunch of things differently,” Greenwood said. “It wasn’t the way all the guys did it before her.”
But Cohen, the Canadian columnist, called her “emblematic of an absentee ambassador. Kelly Craft was simply not present.”
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who reviewed her work records, said she had spent nearly a full year, 357 days, away from Canada. That included seven months in Kentucky, where she was photographed at basketball games, and Oklahoma, where the Crafts have another home.
The Democrats reported that just 40 absentee days were related to talks for the post-NAFTA agreement known as the USMCA. And on 29 nights when she came to Washington, she stayed at the Trump International Hotel.
“Ambassador Craft has neither the experience nor the skill set to represent U.S. interests or challenge the world’s most seasoned diplomats on the global stage,” they concluded.
Asked whether she would be in New York more, Craft wrote, “I will be working 24/7 as Permanent Representative to the United Nations to promote and protect our national interests. Those who know me do not question my work ethic.”
Andrew Gowan, a U.N. analyst for the Crisis Group, said the departure of national security adviser John Bolton, an ardent foe of the United Nations, may give Craft more room to maneuver.
“Hurting the U.N. is what Bolton liked to do in his spare time,” Gowan said. “Pompeo is not U.N.-phobic, but he’s a U.N. skeptic. He’s not going to give Craft a lot of space, but he won’t interfere to the same degree Bolton would.”
One area for which she may be remembered is climate change.
In her confirmation hearing, Craft acknowledged that human behavior is partly to blame and promised to be “an advocate for all countries to do their part in addressing climate change.”
She could be tested on that soon. Trump has stated his intention to leave the 2016 Paris agreement, which was endorsed by President Barack Obama. The Trump administration’s first chance to give formal notice is in November, to take effect after another year.
So it will fall to Craft to formally announce the U.S. withdrawal and explain how the United States proceeds in the interim.Will she cast a veto on climate issues before the Security Council? Will U.S. diplomats even participate in climate meetings?
“If the position of the administration doesn’t change, then we should step aside and not try to block the rest of the world,” said Andrew Light, a senior climate change official under Obama and now a senior fellow at the World Resource Institute. “It’s how she will be judged, to a large degree.”
Asked how she will advocate for action, Craft replied: “I share the President’s perspective on this challenge. Yes, climate change is a real threat and requires the attention and action of all nations, and the United States has been a leader on reducing emissions.”
“Unfortunately, the approach favored by the previous administration threatened to undermine our country’s economic wellbeing in exchange for hollow promises from major global polluters,” she wrote. “The Trump administration, on the other hand, is focused on unlocking investment, spurring research, and promoting innovation. That leadership is something I will be proud to advertise at the United Nations.”