Joe Craft, the chief executive of one of the nation’s biggest coal companies and a major Republican bank roller, is on the verge of moving even closer into the White House inner circle.
President Donald Trump proposed in February that Craft’s wife, Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft, become the next U.S. envoy to the United Nations, which would give her a front-row seat to the international climate talks that have huge implications for Joe Craft’s business.
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As CEO of the Tulsa, Okla.-based coal empire Alliance Resource Partners, Joe Craft is already an active player in Washington when it comes to energy policy.
For example, key actors from Trump to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mounted an unsuccessful last-second public campaign to get the Tennessee Valley Authority to reverse course on shuttering a power plant Alliance supplied last month. The federal power utility determined its Paradise Unit 3 facility in Kentucky, along with the Bull Run power plant in Tennessee, was too expensive to keep running.
“He’s got a keen understanding of the legislative and regulatory process, and increasingly the energy business is intertwined with government policy,” a federal government official who knows Joe Craft said. “He knows a lot of people. A lot of people respect him and he’s a prominent figure, so I imagine he can pick up the phone and call anybody.”
McConnell recommended Kelly Craft for the U.N. position. The couple gave $2 million to Trump’s political efforts through campaign donations and a share of his inauguration, according to OpenSecrets.org and Federal Election Commission filings.
“He’s been a longtime supporter of Republican candidates and causes,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), to whom Joe Craft has donated, told POLITICO. “I think Joe is pretty well-known by Cabinet members, by the president, by the vice president.”
Craft’s company also weighed in to nix potential nominee David Hill from joining the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in part because Hill criticized the administration’s intent to bail out economically distressed coal and nuclear power plants. Those bailout plans have run aground due to legal concerns. FERC is now considering whether certain facilities going offline would present a problem for maintaining a steady, secure supply of electricity, as proponents of incentives for cash-strapped generators have claimed. Craft would stand to benefit from such interventions.
Craft has also had sway at the EPA, which has been at the center of efforts to lessen the regulatory burden on coal. Craft regularly communicated with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, with whom he bonded over their Kentucky roots and Oklahoma careers: Pruitt lived in Tulsa when he was the state’s attorney general. The New York Times reported last June that Pruitt secured prime tickets for a college basketball game at the University of Kentucky, where Craft is a major fan and booster. (The team’s practice facility bears his name.)
“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,” said Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, who visited the Crafts with the chamber’s board of directors in Canada last October.
Joe Craft’s allies describe him and his wife as humble, genuine people dedicated to philanthropic causes. They say Joe Craft cares deeply about his eastern Kentucky home region and his adopted Tulsa community.
Barr said Craft’s story “is the American dream.” Coming from humble beginnings in eastern Kentucky’s coal-heavy Perry County, he went to University of Kentucky, then its law school, before heading into the business on which his community was built — coal. He learned the business “from the bottom up” to create “one of the most extraordinary energy companies, I would say not just in the United States, but the world,” Barr said.
Craft amassed a fortune along the way and pumped some of it into educational and other endeavors in Kentucky and Oklahoma. He donated $7.7 million to various universities and causes through his charity, the Joseph W. Craft III Foundation, according to 990 filings from 2014 through 2016. One of Craft’s proudest achievements was funding the Craft Academy, a specialized STEM high school in eastern Kentucky, Adkisson said.
“He is somewhat reserved, certainly unassuming. He’s not the first person in a meeting to speak up, but when he does, it’s substance. He’s very generous, he’s quietly very generous,” Adkisson said, noting Craft once on the spot pledged to match donations for a Chamber program to send principals of eastern Kentucky businesses to an executive leadership conference — a roughly $100,000 commitment.
Craft’s political giving has been less quiet and just as generous. He donated nearly $8.8 million to federal candidates through 2017, more than $8.5 million of which went to Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.org. Federal Election Commission filings showed he gave more than $350,000, all to Republicans, last campaign cycle.
In 2012, the couple co-hosted an Indiana fundraiser for Romney, according to an invitation that lists other attendees as then-Rep. Mike Pence and ‘80s acting stars Bo Derek and Ricky Schroder. The barbecue took place at the Indiana home of businessman Steve Chancellor, a coal executive and big game trophy hunter. Chancellor now sits on Trump’s wildlife conservation council and lobbied Pruitt to soften pollution rules.
Joe Craft has already benefited from a number of Trump administration policies long sought by Republicans and the coal industry. Chiefly, it nixed the Obama administration’s carbon dioxide regulations for power plants, opting for a scaled-back version instead, and announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
Alliance has fared well given the headwinds facing the coal industry, said Joe Aldina, a coal analyst at S&P Global Platts Analytics. Alliance has weathered slumps in the coal market better than its competitors. When others made risky acquisitions, Craft stayed pat; when they filed for bankruptcy, he stayed afloat.
“Alliance is a big success story in the coal markets; he’s got a ton of money, he’s politically connected and all that. It’s hard to infer what his political influence might be,” said Aldina, who said he didn’t have any particular insight in the Trump administration’s inner sanctum. “I think Alliance is a well-run company overall, which has made Joe Craft a lot of money and given him some influence.”
Alexander Panetta contributed to this report.