Trump’s U.N. ambassador confronts ethics questions over climate change

President Donald Trump’s new ambassador to the United Nations will decide whether to recuse herself from issues involving fossil fuels on a case-by-case basis after a recent briefing with ethics lawyers, State Department officials said.

Kelly Craft publicly pledged in June to recuse herself from any discussions involving coal, and officials said she will adhere to that pledge.

But the incoming envoy sought clarity last week regarding other fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. She received a briefing from ethics lawyers on August 7 and will “comply with all relevant ethics obligations, including the obligation not to participate in any particular matter affecting her financial interests or those of her spouse,” one State Department official told McClatchy this week.

Critics have raised concerns about Craft’s ability to do her job at the United Nations, where climate change is a top priority, given her husband’s position as a coal executive and the couple’s investments in an array of energy companies.

Craft and her husband, Joe Craft, president of Alliance Resource Partners, reported more than $63 million in assets across the energy sector, including in oil, gas and coal. Those fossil fuels are the leading pollutants causing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations considers climate change the “defining issue of our time,” and in Craft’s inaugural weeks as ambassador there, will convene a major summit on the crisis for global heads of state.

Craft’s ethics obligations will be a factor as the administration considers how it will participate in the September 23 summit led by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

Craft was required to receive the ethics briefing within 15 days of her confirmation, according to her ethics agreement with the Office of Government Ethics. There will be more consultations ahead.

“Ambassador Craft has consulted with State Department ethics officials in the past, and she will continue to do so as questions arise, to make sure she remains in compliance with her ethics obligations,” the State Department official said.

Foreign envoys based at the U.N. expressed concern with the Kentucky Republican’s nomination before she was even confirmed, telling McClatchy in May that her affiliations with the coal industry had “made an impression” within the diplomatic community in New York.

Ethics officials from previous administrations characterized the State Department guidance as vague, but noted that existing law sets a high bar for recusal.

“There’s some debate about whether climate change and moving away from fossil fuels is so broad that it doesn’t meet the statutory requirement of constituting a ‘particular matter,’” said Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.

“It could get very specific, very quickly, but that argument will be made” by government attorneys, Painter continued. “It’s just a no-brainer – you can’t have a U.N. ambassador who’s a coal baroness engaging in climate change discussion.”

Alliance Resource Partners is the second largest coal producer in the eastern United States with underground mining complexes in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and a coal loading terminal in Indiana.

Financial disclosure reports filed when Craft became U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2017 list her and her husband’s various holdings in Alliance and other energy-related entities as worth more than $63 million. The couple contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

While primarily invested in coal, Alliance acquired multiple oil and gas interests in recent years and announced a $145 million agreement to purchase additional oil and gas interests just days after Craft’s confirmation hearing in June.

“We are still waiting for clarity on fossil fuels for that conversation within our ethics agreement,” Craft told the committee. “We have asked for clarity on this. But I will give you my commitment that where coal is part of the conversation within climate change at the U.N., I will recuse myself.”

Testifying to the Senate panel, Craft said she was uncertain about the extent of her family’s interests in oil and gas.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Craft of a “lack of diligence in avoiding conflicts,” and his colleagues called on her to recuse herself from all matters at the U.N. related to climate change.

In a report compiled by his office, Menendez said that Craft appeared unaware of the extent of her holdings despite providing detailed documents on her personal assets and investments to the committee for review.

“Craft’s inability to answer basic questions about her ethical obligations is surprising and disturbing,” Menendez said.

While Craft told senators that her husband “plays no role whatsoever in official U.S. government business,” Democratic investigators say her email and scheduling suggests otherwise.

According to her calendars, Craft participated in more than a dozen meetings with executives of energy and oil companies as U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Joe Craft attended a “handful” of those meetings, including those with U.S. and Canadian energy and environment officials, the report says.

One February 2018 meeting was attended by the CEOs of the aluminum company Alcoa and mining group Rio Tinto, the premier of Quebec, and the U.S. deputy secretary of energy.

The next month, the report says, Joe Craft joined his wife in a meeting with the chief operating officer of Suncor Energy in Houston, along with a State Department special adviser on energy and environment.

In July 2018, he participated in meetings with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Calgary.

In the ethics agreement, dated May 3, Craft wrote that her husband agreed not to communicate directly with the State Department on behalf of his companies while she serves as U.N. ambassador.

Virginia Canter, a former White House ethics counsel in the Obama and Clinton administrations who is now chief ethics counsel at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit watchdog group that focuses on ethics in government, called Craft’s potential conflicts of interest “highly problematic.”

Craft’s ethics agreement amounts to a “step in the right direction, that she is trying to draw some sort of line,” Canter said. But she noted that climate change is a top priority at the U.N. “and I would certainly want my person there to be able to participate.”

At her confirmation hearing, Craft acknowledged the weight climate change holds at the U.N., but said she was “confident” that her team would be able to take her place in relevant conversations.

Craft had drawn scrutiny in 2017 for saying that she believed “both sides of the science” in the climate debate, but she reversed herself at the confirmation hearing, stating that she now believes climate change “poses real risks to our planet.”

Her husband, she joked, may not agree.

“I may have to ask for a ride home after this,” she quipped, her husband seated behind her in the Senate committee room. “If anyone can offer me a ride after climate change.”

Ben Wieder contributed to this report.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.