Trump's new United Nations envoy to deliver his message minus the bombast

Kelly Craft during a confirmation hearing in Washington on June 19, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Sarah Silbiger

Kelly Craft is expected to leave bombast to President Donald Trump, swagger to Michael Pompeo and hard-line strategy to John Bolton when she takes her seat as U.S. ambassador at the UN next week.

In an administration known for its confrontations with both allies and adversaries, Craft, a wealthy Trump campaign contributor who previously served as envoy to Canada, has signaled that she intends a lower-profile role at the United Nations than the one carved out by her predecessor, Nikki Haley.

Interviews with people familiar with Craft's thinking say she'll focus on a narrower range of issues at the world body where her involvement -- and her connections to Trump -- could help move the needle. She's cited the need to muster more resources from "other responsible nations" to respond to "massive and protracted" humanitarian crises from Sudan to Yemen and Syria.

"Making progress at the UN requires constant attention to relationships, a knack for knowing the bottom line, and a belief in incremental, but determined, steps forward," Craft, 57, said at her Senate confirmation hearing in June.

It's a strategy encouraged by a veteran former diplomat. "Pick one or two things and do them well," said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates and a former State Department undersecretary. "Lone Rangers get nowhere at a place like the UN. You will find allies in unexpected corners, depending on the issue."

Craft's new job may require her to deliver strongly worded statements defending Israel against criticism and condemning Iran's leaders and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. But she's unlikely to start from the combative stance of her politically seasoned - and politically ambitious - predecessor, Haley. On her first day at the UN, Haley memorably vowed: "For those that don't have our back, we're taking names."

Officially, Craft will have a lesser standing than Haley because Trump is no longer giving the UN post the full Cabinet status that the former South Carolina governor enjoyed. That means Craft will be acting on policies set by Pompeo, who likes to boast that he's brought the swagger back to the State Department, and Bolton, who famously said in the 1990s that if the UN building in Manhattan "lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

But Craft has a connection to Trump that Pompeo and Bolton would challenge at their own risk: She and her husband, coal company CEO Joe Craft, were early Trump backers, giving $430,800 to the Trump Victory Committee, which supported his presidential campaign and the Republican party. Joe Craft also gave $750,000 to Future45, a super-PAC that supported Trump. They're also close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, their home state.

At the UN, one of Craft's priorities will be to zero in on humanitarian tragedies, such as the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, according to an official who has spoken to her recently. She also could play a role in further UN efforts to ease the humanitarian disaster and halt the fighting in Yemen, where the U.S. has backed a Saudi-led coalition.

"Focusing on issues she can frame as humanitarian is smart politics in Washington," said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. "Going for big statements on political issues could create friction with Pompeo or Bolton. But if it's humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, she won't encounter much pushback."

Craft will also push other countries to boost their contributions to UN agencies and work closely with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to implement budget reforms, one of the people added. Guterres warned earlier this year that UN agencies face a combined shortfall of almost $2 billion.

Trump often complains that U.S. contributions don't produce desired results. Pompeo thwarted a recent move by the White House budget office to cut unused funds for foreign aid and UN programs.

The U.S. is by far the biggest contributor to the UN Refugee Agency, spending $975 million compared to paltry sums from Russia and China. Pushing those nations to contribute more would be a smart move, Gowan said.

As ambassador, Craft will have rights to the official UN envoy's residence in Manhattan, a leased luxury penthouse where Haley lived. Craft's days on duty in New York are likely to be tallied by observers after the disclosure that she spent more than 300 days away from her previous post as U.S. envoy in Ottawa. At her confirmation hearing she promised to be available for UN duty "24/7."

After arriving at the UN on Sept. 12, Craft will present her credentials to Guterres and have lunch with the secretary-general. Soon after, she'll meet with ambassadors from the four other permanent members of the Security Council: Russia, China, the U.K. and France. Then, she'll dive into preparations to host Trump's visit later this month for the UN General Assembly.

Craft will arrive just as the UN gets ready to host a climate summit at the end of the month, attended by world leaders and activists such as 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who arrived in New York last week in a zero-carbon emissions sailing boat. Craft is in sensitive territory as the spouse of a coal industry executive -- and as the envoy of a president who spurns the scientific consensus that human activity risks devastating environmental consequences.

In a 2017 interview on Canada's CBC television network, Craft said she believes "there are scientists on both sides that are accurate." At her Senate confirmation hearing, she swung further in the other direction than Trump might have liked, saying, "I do believe fossil fuels do play a role in climate change." She also said she'll recuse herself from issues at the UN concerning coal.

"It might be better for her to give lip service for goals to transition from carbon-heavy industries," said Stuart Gottlieb, who teaches international relations at Columbia University. "She can find a middle ground where she acknowledges the issue even as she makes it clear it can't come at the expense of the U.S. economy."

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With assistance from Bill Allison.

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