Trump's UN ambassador nominee faces tough questions on climate change, credentials

CONOR FINNEGAN

Trump's UN ambassador nominee faces tough questions on climate change, credentials originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

President Donald Trump's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations faced tough questions during her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday on the international body, climate change, her top priorities and limited of diplomatic experience.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, who along with her husband is a major donor to Trump and other Republicans, is expected to be confirmed to the role -- described as the second most important U.S. diplomat, behind the Secretary of State.

(MORE: Trump nominates Kelly Knight Craft as UN ambassador)

PHOTO: In this file photo, President Donald Trump meets with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 9, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP, FILE)

Trump's first ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley departed her post at the end of 2018. A career diplomat has filled in for nearly six months now in an acting capacity. While Haley was a member of Trump's Cabinet, the administration has since demoted the position out of the Cabinet. Trump had nominated his former State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert to replace Haley, but Nauert withdrew her name months later.

Before her nearly two-year tenure as U.S. envoy in Ottawa -- where she was involved in renegotiating NAFTA -- Craft was a businesswoman and a political donor, especially with her husband Joe, who is a wealthy executive for one of the largest U.S. coal producers. Craft was candid about her lack of experience on Wednesday, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she would approach the role with "clear-eyed humility. I have much to learn about the United Nations."

But "ultimately, I would not have accepted the president's nomination if I was not certain I was ready for the task at hand," she added.

(MORE: Haley resigns as UN ambassador, will leave at end of the year, Trump says)

Republicans on the committee defended her credentials, in particular pointing to her time in Canada during Trump's tumultuous relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government as solid experience.

Democrats blasted her for "excessive" absences from her post, pointing out that she traveled back to the U.S. regularly, even after NAFTA negotiations resulted in a replacement deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

"I find this staggering amount of time away from post very troubling and an abdication of leadership," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the committee.

PHOTO: Kelly Craft, President Trump's nominee to be Representative to the United Nations, testifies at her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 19, 2019, in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

Craft said all the travel was approved by the State Department and was paid for out of her own pocket, even when traveling for business purposes. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that in the end, Craft actually saved taxpayers money because of that.

During the 2016 campaign, Craft and her husband each donated $2,700 -- the maximum amount individuals are allowed to donate -- to Rubio's reelection campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets database. Joe Craft also donated to the senatorial campaigns of Mitt Romney of Utah and Todd Young of Indiana, in addition to $1 million to Trump's inauguration fund. They've also given extensively to their home-state Sen. Mitch McConnell, who lobbied Trump to nominate Craft for the ambassadorship and introduced her Wednesday before the hearing.

Given her family business ties to coal, Craft said that she would recuse herself on matters related to it during her time as U.N. ambassador, as part of an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics. That could include recusing herself on all fossil fuel-related issues, she added, pending a final decision from the ethics officials.

"I will be in full compliance with our ethics agreement," she said repeatedly.

(MORE: Trump says 'I don't believe' federal report's findings that climate change will hurt the economy)

PHOTO: Sled dogs wade through standing water on the sea ice during an expedition in North Western Greenland, June 13, 2019. (Steffen Olsen/AFP/Getty Images)

After previously saying she believed in "both sides of the science" on climate change, Craft also said unequivocally that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it, including the role of fossil fuels -- something Trump has refused to acknowledge.

"Climate change needs to be addressed as it poses real risk to our planet. Human behavior has contributed to the changing climate, let there be no doubt," she said in her opening remarks, adding that it will be a "top priority" for her at the U.N.

(MORE: Trump EPA finalizes power plant rules to replace Obama's signature climate change policy)

But Craft defended withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, saying America should not take on an "outsize burden" that "imperils" jobs or economic growth. She said the U.S. is already leading on the issue, citing a 14% reduction in carbon emissions between 2005 and 2017.

The U.S. Energy Agency reported in May, however, that emissions rose in 2018 by 2.7%.

That stated support for climate change may cause some marital tension, Craft joked at one point.

"If anyone can offer me a ride after climate change," she said to laughs.

Hours after the U.N. released a special investigative report into the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Craft also said she promised lawmakers that she would use the U.S. membership on the U.N. Security Council to press for full accountability in the Saudi government, including at the highest levels.