From small-town Kentucky to the UN: Can Trump nominee Kelly Craft surprise the skeptics?

Kelly Craft started as U.S. Ambassador to Canada in October 2017, plunging immediately into contentious trade negotiations on behalf of a president who was unpopular there even before he began to insult Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter.

Just three months in, President Donald Trump made new headlines when he called Haiti one of the “----hole countries” that sent too many immigrants to the United States. Craft immediately called the Haitian ambassador in Ottawa and offered a personal apology — a harbinger of what Canadian officials say would be a hallmark of her tenure: grace under pressure.

“She’s done the job very well when at the top, the relationship is as bad as it’s ever been,” said Frank McKenna, the former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. who recounted the apology Craft offered.

It’s why numerous friends and colleagues believe the Kentucky native, despite a scanty resume in foreign policy, could surprise skeptics in her next gig: Trump plans to nominate her as his ambassador to the United Nations, replacing Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina.

Craft, 57, had little diplomatic experience when Trump nominated her for the Canadian post, which is traditionally given to political donors. Craft and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft of Alliance Resource Partners, both longtime Republican donors, contributed to a committee backing Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and served on his inaugural committee.

But with the unconventional U.S. president ripping up trade policy and imposing tariffs, Craft, the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Canada, proved a quick study during turbulent times.

“In many ways, being ambassador to Canada under President Trump is good training ground for the U.N.,” McKenna said. “She has turned people around on her and the United States. We’ve been friends, allies, neighbors and cousins, but every time President Trump insults our country or our prime minister, it creates a huge challenge for the ambassadors.”

Keeping the wheels on the bus

Though Craft was not Trump’s first choice, McKenna said he expects her to bring to the job “the same charm and grace and listening skills that she brought to the job in Canada, and in some respects it might be just what the U.N. needs.

“She will not be bellicose, she will represent the views of her country, but she’ll do it in a discerning way,” he said.

It has not been an easy time for U.S.-Canada relations. Only 25 percent of Canadians rated Trump positively in an October Pew Research Poll and only 39 percent of Canadians expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S. as a whole — the lowest percentage since Pew began polling Canada in 2002.

Many Canadians were prepared not to like “Trump’s ambassador,” but they underestimated Craft, said Christopher Sands, a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“The Canada-U.S. relationship hasn’t been super easy, but she managed to keep the wheels on the bus,” Sands said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he apologized to Craft when he spotted her at Queen’s Plate, the Kentucky Derby of Canada. Amid a sea of top hats and tuxedos, Ford was wearing a golf jersey and slacks.

“She was like, ‘No, I’m a t-shirt and jeans gal myself,’ “ Ford said of the always-impeccably dressed Craft. “I was immediately struck by how down to earth and approachable she was. Nothing is more important in her role than relationship building.”

Ford said Craft has proven adept at connecting the Canadian government with White House officials and has made sure to get out beyond Ottawa, the capitol.

“Every premier I know thinks the world of her,” said Ford, who shared a stage with Craft at a Canadian American Business Council event in Washington recently. “She really proved herself over some tough times.”

Joe Craft, Kelly Knight Craft and Republican strategist Karl Rove attended the 2012 Kentucky Derby. John Harralson The Voice-Tribune

Craft, who grew up in the small Barren County town of Glasgow, has surprised critics before.

David Hawpe, the former editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who served on the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees with Craft, said he’s long been concerned about the coal industry and was “pre-disposed to be skeptical.”

But Craft, who served on the board for a year before being nominated for the Canada job, asked relevant questions, was informed “and did her homework,” Hawpe said. He noted that Craft is not “in the same line of succession” with people like Adlai Stevenson, a diplomat who helped found the United Nations and served as its chief U.S. delegate or Arthur Goldberg, who resigned from the Supreme Court of the United States to become President Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“But I also believe you don’t have to be if you’re the kind of person who can step up and do the job, and she very well may be,” Hawpe said.

Rep. James Comer of Kentucky and others credited Craft with helping get the U.S. and Canada to the point where there is a new trade agreement:

“I don’t ever recall a more challenging time between the U.S. and Canada than the beginning of the Trump administration, but I think she did a great job keeping the peace and creating an atmosphere where they could have a successful trade agreement,” he said. “I can’t even name who was U.S. ambassador to Canada before her.”

Small town beginning

Craft grew up in Glasgow as the daughter of Bob Guilfoil, the town veterinarian, who was heavily involved in Democratic politics, even serving as the chairman of the Barren County Democratic Party for a time.

Former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray remembers Dr. Guilfoil making house calls when the Gray collie White Sox was sick, and attending the First Christian Church of Glasgow with the family. The Guilfoils also hosted the annual Democratic Party barbecue at their farm just outside Glasgow.

But, Gray said, “she always had ambitions that went beyond the borders of the city limits of Glasgow.”

Craft married twice and raised her two daughters in Lexington, while also working on various charities around town, such as the Salvation Army.

“The Salvation Army was a board she holds near and dear to her heart,” recalled long-time friend Ellen Williams, a former state Republican Party chair, “and when Kelly works on a board, she gets deep in the weeds, she rolls up her sleeves and goes to work.” Craft also raised money for local arts organizations.

But soon, she turned her energies to Republican politics, going from holding fundraisers in her home for local and state candidates to becoming a “bundler” in 2004 for former President George W. Bush. In 2012, she and her then-boyfriend, Joe Craft, were the state co-chairs for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, hosting $50,000 a plate dinners at fancy horse farms like Stonestreet in Woodford County.

Like many Republicans in Kentucky, former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson met Craft when she hosted a fundraiser for one of his campaigns. He got to know her better in 2008 when they served together on the platform committee for the Republican National Convention.

Craft is a Republican loyalist; she supported neither Trump nor Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in their primaries, but quickly moved to help raise money for their campaigns and inaugurations once they won.

“She’s not afraid to back someone in a primary, she backed me in 2010, but when the party nominates someone, she doesn’t hold grudges, and will work on behalf of the party,” Grayson said. In 2015, she supported Comer in the highly contentious governor’s race, but once he lost in the primary, she threw her significant financial weight behind Gov. Matt Bevivn. He’s now such a fan of Craft’s that her name came up as a potential running mate for him in 2018.

Bevin, who had dinner with Trump and Craft after the announcement, notes Craft has come a long way from Glasgow, where she grew up as the daughter of a large animal veterinarian. (In a State Department video introducing her to Canada, Craft notes that she grew up “thinking dogs only had three legs and cats had one eye” because of all the injured animals her father would bring home from the clinic.)

“She lives a rather remarkable life for a girl who grew up in a small country town in Kentucky but she wears it well,” said Bevin, noting that she’s fielded calls from both Trump and Trudeau. “Even though at times those two entities are at odds with each other, they see her as a tie that binds the countries together.”

Comer said Craft’s father treated his family’s cattle and that he first met Kelly Craft when he became a state legislator. She would go on to serve as finance co-chair when he ran for governor in 2015.

“She had the reputation of being a very successful fundraiser,” Comer said. “She was someone that if you were going to run for statewide office in Kentucky, you’d better try to gain her support.”

He said Craft has a deep network of friends “and a lot of people trust her judgment.” He noted that she’d been active with George W. Bush and helped the Romney campaign. “She’s a player.”

Comer lost in the Republican primary to Bevin — and Craft went on to help Bevin win the governor’s mansion. But Comer — who had dinner recently with Craft at the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. as he briefly considered a run for governor — said he remains close with Craft.

Comer, who is no fan of Bevin’s, credits Craft with helping Bevin win office.

“Bevin was smart to get in with Kelly immediately,” Comer said. “She significantly helped him and he probably wouldn’t have won without her help.”Comer said.

Craft also introduced Bevin to the Republican Governor’s Association.

Comer noted Craft is a committed athlete and enthusiastic runner who has participated in marathons. “I’ve spoken to her on the phone before, and she’s running,” he said. “Early in the morning.”

Even as ambassador to Canada, Craft remains very much an ambassador for Kentucky, telling Canadian audiences that her native state is “home to the very important exports: bluegrass bourbon and basketball.”

As Ford at the trade event touted the benefits of investing in Ontario, Craft interjected that “Kentucky is open for business, too.” And after Ford gave out his cell phone number, telling business executives to text if they had any business prospects, she joked that she’d give out Bevin’s phone number, “cause I’m afraid we’re having a competition here.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warmly introduced Craft at her initial confirmation hearing in 2017, in which she engaged in a little basketball bragging, noting that Kentucky shares a border with 7 states and it’s only border problems are when neighboring states “go home after losing to the Kentucky Wildcats.”

Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, took her up on the jousting when it was his time to question Craft, playing a video clip of his Hoosiers of Indiana University defeating top-ranked Kentucky in 2011.

“Consider this a diplomatic test,” Young quipped as he asked Craft to identify the game.

UK head basketball coach John Calipari and the UK men’s basketball team, shown with booster Joe Craft and Ambassador Kelly Craft, up to raise funds for Hurricane Harvey relief during the Teaming Up For Texas telethon to benefit the American Red Cross at the WKYT studios in Lexington, Ky., Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017. Matt Goins

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Climate questions

Craft married coal billionaire Joe Craft in 2016. It’s unclear if she adopted his attitude that, as he told a newspaper reporter in 2012, President Barack Obama was taking in the country in the wrong direction with a so-called “war on coal” and “increased spending, growing government debt and overreaching regulations are stifling job creation and economic growth.”

She certainly drew widespread scorn for ignoring the scientific consensus about climate change by telling the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a 2017 interview that she supported “scientists on both sides.” Canada, unlike the United States, has remained in the 2015 Paris climate change accord. Vox.com called the interview “cringeworthy.”

But Trump himself has questioned the science, once claiming climate change was a Chinese hoax intended to hurt American exports.

“This administration has a view that’s in conflict with the way most folks at the UN believe, so it’s not a surprise he would nominate someone close to his view on that issue,” Grayson noted.

Craft sailed through her Senate confirmation hearing without a glitch and was confirmed unanimously.

Though the new post will not be a Cabinet position as Haley had requested, it still carries a considerably higher profile and Craft is likely to face a sharper round of questioning. Sen. Ben Cardin, D- Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he plans to meet with Craft and talk about her views on the United Nations. Cardin said he was unaware of “anything that stands out” from her tenure as ambassador, adding “and that’s probably good for an ambassador.”

Craft also carries the support of McConnell, who pitched Trump on her candidacy for UN ambassador.

He defended Craft against skepticism that she has a thin foreign policy resume, noting her predecessor Haley “had zero ... and she did a fine job by all accounts.”

“She’s exceptionally good at interacting with people, has solid judgment and now she has some foreign policy experience,” McConnell said. “In Kentucky, we’re all proud any time a Kentuckian ends up in a prominent position in the country.”

Linda Blackford is an education and accountability reporter. She has covered K-12, higher education and other topics for the past 20 years at the Herald-Leader.