WASHINGTON — Callista Gingrich, Donald Trump's nominee to be ambassador to the Vatican, told skeptical Democrats on Tuesday that the president wants the United States to be an environmental leader even after pulling the country out of the landmark accord aimed at combating global warming.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gingrich said Trump is committed to sustaining "our clean air and our clean water." She said "we aren't backing off of that" despite Trump's recent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
"We're all called to be stewards of the land," said Gingrich, the wife of Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and a close ally of Trump's.
Democrats have criticized Trump sharply for leaving the Paris accord, a move that left the United States, Syria and Nicaragua as the only sovereign countries to not be part of the agreement. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Trump's withdrawal "one of the worst decisions of the 21st century because of the huge damage to our economy, our environment and our geopolitical standing."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told Callista Gingrich that he must have missed the statements from Trump that gave her such faith.
"I wish it were so," he said. "I'm not persuaded."
Pope Francis met with Trump in late May at the Vatican, days after the president announced he was nominating Gingrich to the ambassador's post. Francis — who has framed climate change as an urgent moral crisis and blamed global warming on an unfair, fossil fuel-based industrial model that harms the poor — presented Trump as a gift his 2015 encyclical on the need to protect the environment.
Merkley asked Gingrich whether Trump has read the encyclical. She said she's not aware whether he has or not. Merkley asked her whether she shares the pope's desire to urgently address the factors causing global change.
Gingrich said she believes that climate change exists and that "some of it is due to human behavior."
Trump "wants the United States to be an environmental leader," she said. "But we are looking to increase the security of this country, to provide more jobs for Americans and to have better prosperity."
Callista Gingrich is president of Gingrich Productions and has produced a number of documentaries, including one about Pope John Paul II.
She worked for the House Committee on Agriculture as chief clerk until 2007. She was a key figure in her husband's 2012 bid for the Republican nomination.
She was a congressional aide when she began a six-year affair with Newt Gingrich, then a married Republican congressman.
In 2012, Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, told ABC News that he had proposed an "open marriage" so he could continue to see Callista without divorcing. The former House speaker denied the charge.
He converted to Catholicism in 2009, after years of attending mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where Callista Gingrich has performed in the choir.
Trump's vision for foreign relations and diplomacy has been starkly different from that promoted by the vastly popular Pope Francis. While Francis has spoken of the need for bridges between nations, Trump has advocated building a wall on the Mexican border and restricting travel to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries as necessary national security measures.