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Trump's 'influential' pick for ambassador to Canada faces Senate hearing

by Matt Kwong (feat. Colin Robertson)

CBC News
July 20, 2017

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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."


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