07/20/2017 13:12 EDT | Updated 07/23/2017 11:04 EDT

Timing may be urgent for Trump's Canada envoy but Senate questions weren't

OTTAWA — It was an hour into her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday before Kelly Knight Craft, chosen by U.S. President Donald Trump to serve as the next ambassador to Canada at a pivotal time for bilateral relations, was asked her first question.

It came from Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young.

"Consider this a diplomatic test," he said, and then played an audio clip from his phone.

It was from a college basketball game, nearly six years ago, when the Hoosiers of Indiana University, from his home state, narrowly beat the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky, from hers.

The room erupted into laughter and Young said he had nothing else.

The Trump administration may want to have its ambassador in Canada quickly, since negotiations for the new North American Free Trade Agreement are set to begin next month. But the urgency did not seem to translate into any greater scrutiny for the proposed envoy at the hearing in Washington, D.C.

She was asked again about college basketball and even brought it up herself in her opening statement, which included a broad outline of her goals as Canadian ambassador.

"I will work tirelessly to further enhance our strong economic partnership — the most extensive and integrated economic relationship of any two nations in the world," Knight Craft said.

"I believe we can do better," she added. "If confirmed, I will seek new opportunities to foster further growth to create more jobs for both countries, while promoting free and fair trade to ensure that American businesses and workers can compete on a level playing field."

Knight Craft did not divulge many details about the role she expects in NAFTA talks, except that she will work closely with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on advancing American priorities on the file.

Later on, when asked to share her plans for promoting U.S. exports to Canada, Knight Craft mentioned softwood lumber, dairy and poultry as areas where she would direct some of her efforts.

Knight Craft, who would be the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Canada, said she would also work to advance shared goals on energy security, which she mentioned is linked to the environment.

Knight Craft was sharing her time with more high-profile nominees including Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has been tapped to represent the U.S. at NATO, and Robert Wood Johnson IV, who Trump has chosen to fill the U.K. post.

Each were asked by Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, whether they believed Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"I believe, just from reading the material that everyone has had the opportunity to read, that it looks as if yes," Knight Craft said.

Senators devoted much more time to grilling Hutchison about Russian aggression and the role of NATO.

Trump had said during the campaign that he believed the military alliance is obsolete, and the former Republican senator from Texas was asked directly for her view.

She was also asked whether she is unequivocal in her commitment to Article 5 — the self-defence clause that means an attack on one member of the alliance generates a response by all.

"I think the president realized immediately that it is an important and successful alliance," said Hutchison, who also said she is committed to Article 5.

"Your role in reasserting that will be very important," Menendez said.

Knight Craft said she also valued the partnership Canada has with the U.S. in Norad and NATO.

"The United States is fortunate to have a neighbour that shares a strong commitment to democratic values and works tirelessly to promote peace, prosperity and human rights around the world," she said.

Knight Craft is a political donor and philanthropist married to billionaire Joe Craft, the president and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners L.P., one of the biggest coal producers in the eastern U.S.

The U.S. ambassador post in Canada has been vacant since former envoy Bruce Heyman stepped down after Trump's election.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter