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Trump’s U.N. nominee was ‘absent’ ambassador

Ambassador Kelly Craft’s frequent travel between the United States and Canada will likely be a major question mark at her confirmation hearing this week. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

foreign policy

FAA records raise questions about the extent of Kelly Craft’s travels while serving as the top U.S. diplomat in Ottawa.

President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations – current U.S. ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft – was frequently absent from her post in Ottawa, raising questions about her level of engagement with the job, according to officials in both the United States and Canada.

State Department officials acknowledge her frequent travels outside of Canada, but said many of the trips were related to the new North American trade deal. Her absences from her official post are likely to be an issue in her confirmation hearing, which is now scheduled for Wednesday.

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Federal Aviation Administration records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by POLITICO show that a private jet registered to Craft’s husband and used by the ambassador made 128 flights between the United States and Canada during a 15-month span of her tenure in Ottawa, the equivalent of a roundtrip once a week.

Some of the trips correspond with dates of events Craft attended in her home state of Kentucky – such as the Kentucky Derby and a media interview at a University of Kentucky basketball center named for her husband Joe Craft, a coal billionaire – but neither she nor he, through their spokespeople, would confirm how many of the flights involved her travel.

The issue of her travels is likely to be particularly relevant at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – which could occur as soon as later this week – because Craft lacks the lengthy political or diplomatic experience of most former ambassadors to the United Nations. A 57-year-old business consultant from Lexington, Kentucky, Craft served from 2007 to 2008 as an alternate delegate to the U.N. under President George W. Bush but otherwise spent her career in the private sector. Her year and a half tenure in Ottawa represents her prime credential for serving as the lead representative to the United Nations, a position that takes on added importance at moments of international crisis or brinksmanship.

Hill aides say they are concerned about how often she was away from her post in Ottawa, and whether the trips to the United States were for personal rather than official business.

A Democratic aide who has spoken with current and former senior officials in the U.S. government said they depicted the ambassador as “frequently absent from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, and in some cases for extended periods of time.” People familiar with Craft’s tenure in Ottawa have told congressional staff that Craft has very little presence on the city’s diplomatic scene, rarely speaking to media or appearing at public events, the Democratic aide told POLITICO.

“We are concerned that the president has nominated someone who fails to show up at work on a regular basis,” the Democratic aide said.

In addition, a former U.S. official who is in touch with State Department leaders said Craft was viewed around Foggy Bottom as an “absent ambassador” at the embassy in Ottawa and that the mission was often placed in the hands of her deputy while attending to personal business and domestic politics in the United States.

Kelly Craft and Justin Trudeau

Ambassador Kelly Craft meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 3, 2017. | David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ambassadors are required to spend no more than 26 work days a year away from their posts on personal leave without first obtaining special State Department approval, according to the department’s Foreign Affairs manual. Though Craft’s absences from the embassy in Ottawa on work days are recorded on her schedule, neither the embassy nor the State Department officials would provide records of how many days she was present in Ottawa.

A State Department spokesperson said in a prepared statement that all of Craft’s personal and official travel “to and from the United States, including numerous trips associated with USMCA [trade deal] negotiations, were pre-approved by the State Department and complied with all Department travel guidelines. . . In addition, Ambassador Craft elected to cover all travel expenses from personal funds, saving the U.S. government substantial money.”

Her number of personal absences did not exceed department limits, the spokesperson said.

A senior member of the U.S. mission team in Canada, speaking with State Department approval to defend Craft’s performance, acknowledged that Craft left the embassy in the control of a separate charge d’affaires “more times. . . than perhaps at any other embassy.”

The official, who has not worked at the embassy for the entirety of Craft’s tenure, said he could not characterize how many of Craft’s trips were for personal as opposed to official business, but said she was often in Washington for trade negotiations because “she was directly involved in being a bridge” between the two countries. She would also fly to other places in the United States to promote the trade deal, one of Trump’s top political priorities. At those times, she’d sometimes spend the weekend at her Kentucky home rather than return to Ottawa, which does not count toward the 26 days away from her post.

While on trade-related trips to the United States, the senior official said, she often missed ceremonial diplomatic events, such as celebrations of national holidays at other embassies in Ottawa, but “I think that was a tradeoff that just had to be made, and I think she made the right call.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

The Federal Aviation Administration records obtained by POLITICO under the Freedom of Information Act showed a total of 335 flights from January 1, 2018 – two months after Craft took over as ambassador – and April 10, 2019, a month and a half after she was chosen by Trump to succeed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador. Trump’s first choice to replace Haley, former State Department spokeswoman and “Fox & Friends” anchor Heather Nauert, withdrew amid questions about her personal finances and criticism of her perceived lack of credentials.

Craft was also a surprising choice, given her relatively short tenure in Canada. She and her husband Joe, the 68-year-old CEO of Alliance Resource Partners LLC – the third-largest coal producer in the United States – married in 2016. Both are supporters of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who urged Trump to give her the U.N. appointment.

Starting shortly after she took up her post in Ottawa, flight records indicate that Joe Craft’s personal aircraft, a Cessna Citation Sovereign, made the equivalent of 64 roundtrips between the United States and Canada. An additional 38 flights took place within Canada, while 169 more were between U.S. destinations.

Craft’s office has not released her schedules, and the records don’t contain manifests showing who was on the plane during each flight. But many of the trips correspond to known appearances she made in Canada and the United States.

The intra-Canadian sojourns largely align with appearances Kelly Craft made in her capacity as ambassador. Pictures posted on Kelly Craft’s Twitter account show her husband present during visits to Calgary, Montreal and Toronto.

For example, flights on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, 2018, from Ottawa to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, and then on to Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, correspond to a speech she made there to commemorate the town’s hosting of nearly 7,000 passengers from planes diverted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And flights recorded to and from Calgary, Alberta, on July 5 and July 10, 2018, respectively, sync up with Kelly Craft’s appearance at the Calgary Stampede and a meeting with Alberta energy industry representatives. Joe Craft is pictured in one of her tweets bidding farewell to a U.S. consul general assigned to Calgary.

US-Mexico border

But the sheer number of trips between Canada and the U.S. – including 70 with Lexington as the origin or the destination – raise questions about how often Kelly Craft took leave from her job for personal business.

The ambassador sat for an interview with CBC Radio in October after the new NAFTA deal was announced. But the setting wasn’t Lornado, her official residence, or anywhere else in Canada – it was the Joe Craft Center, a basketball practice building at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Another Canadian media personality, CTV News’ Don Martin, complained at the end of his June 29, 2018, show that “embassy sources whisper” that the ambassador “is barely engaged in diplomatic connecting and mostly flying south on her husband’s private jet.”

Some of the plane’s domestic flights landed or took off from the Washington area when Kelly Craft was known to be in the U.S. capital.

For example, the aircraft left Ottawa for Lexington, Kentucky, on Sept. 29, 2018, then flew to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Sept. 30. On Oct. 1, Kelly Craft stood beside President Donald Trump and administration officials focused on trade to announce the updated North American free trade deal.

The aircraft occasionally went for significant stretches without landing in Ottawa or other Canadian cities.

It left Ottawa on July 27, 2018, and didn’t return to Canadian airspace until Aug. 13.

The plane departed Ottawa a week before Christmas in 2018 and didn’t land there again until Jan. 18, 2019.

Kelly Craft’s Twitter account was more active in the early days of her tenure, showcasing her work travels and personal hobbies. She also would occasionally tweet when she was back in Kentucky, posting about attending the Kentucky Derby on May 5, 2018, after tweeting that she was “home in Kentucky for the weekend” on April 27, a Friday.

“Getting back to my Kentucky roots today with a quick trip home,” she tweeted on Feb. 15, 2018, about visiting a high school called Gatton Academy with her sister and the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce, “before touring a U.S. business that has Canadian connections!”

Donald Trump

Craft’s Twitter account also shows how she promoted Kentucky industries, both in visits to the U.S. and within Canada. She has touted Kentucky bourbon, horses and basketball, and shepherded a delegation from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce through its trip to Canada, appearing with members in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa.

In May, 2018, she spoke at the graduation ceremony for Craft Academy, a science and math high school named for Joe Craft and affiliated with Kentucky’s Morehead State University.

Seventeen flights between the U.S. and Canada also started or ended in Tulsa, where Joe Craft’s company, Alliance Resource Partners, is headquartered.

Government ethics and financial disclosure forms show that the Crafts own a 2009 Cessna 680 worth over $ 1 million that brings in rent or royalties worth between $ 100,001 and $ 1 million. A Lexington-based company affiliated with Joe Craft that is listed on those forms, JC Land LLC, as the owner of that Cessna, according to the FAA’s aircraft registry. Its tail number, N72UK, appears to be a nod to the Crafts’ alma mater, the University of Kentucky.

“He has his own transportation so he can drop in on a UK ballgame and then fly into Washington to meet with the Trump administration for breakfast the next morning,” Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, told POLITICO earlier this year. Adkisson visited the Crafts with the chamber’s board of directors in Canada last October.

Several elected Canadian officials said Craft was a personable and professional envoy who handled the curveballs President Donald Trump threw on trade well. But two members of Parliament told POLITICO that Craft kept a lower profile than past ambassadors to the country and didn’t seem as engaged as her predecessors

“We’ve had previous ambassadors who toured all across Canada and who worked very closely, not just with the bureaucrats and the political machine, but also with the people of our country,” said Brian Masse, a member of the New Democratic Party and vice president of the Canada-U.S. interparliamentary group.

The last day included in the records – April 10, 2019 – shows Joe Craft’s plane flying from Ottawa to Dallas’ Love Field.

Kelly Craft was spotted at the Bush Center’s 2019 Forum on Leadership in Dallas on April 11.

Nahal Toosi and Alexander Panetta contributed to this report.

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