President Donald Trump's nominee to head the U.N. migration agency acknowledges a controversy over his social media posts on topics like climate change and Muslims, but insists that "retweets are not endorsements" and says he wants to be judged on his actions as a humanitarian.
Ken Isaacs spoke with reporters Monday as the 169 member states of the International Organization for Migration prepare to elect a successor to longtime diplomat William Lacy Swing as director-general in June.
An intergovernmental body that became a U.N.-related agency two years ago, IOM has had only one director-general who wasn't American since its creation in 1951. Portugal's Antonio Vitorino, a Socialist politician, and IOM deputy director-general Laura Thompson of Costa Rica are also in the running against Isaacs.
Isaacs, a vice president at the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse that is run by evangelist Franklin Graham, pointed to his track record in the field and as a manager, saying that IOM's work is "in my wheelhouse."
"I care about people. I'm passionate about this," Isaacs said.
"I've worked in Darfur. I have worked in Jordan. I have worked in Iraq. I have worked in Syria. I have worked in Turkey. I have worked in Bangladesh," he said. "If you look at the candidates, I'm the only candidate with any 'muddy-boot experience."'
Isaacs said he sees the role of IOM director as twofold: Helping migrants and helping states manage migration issues. He said he recognizes "the sovereign rights of states to form their own domestic immigration policy," yet understands why people sometimes must leave their homes or homelands.
"I understand why people migrate — I understand what that looks like, what that smells like, what that feels like," Isaacs said. "I understand what it means to bring 15 or 20 bodies out of a camp in the morning where people migrated to run away from war and bury them."
But he said he is more than just a relief worker in the field.
"Leadership, vision, management, accountability, transparency — these are all hallmarks of Samaritan's Purse and this is who I am," he said in the interview at the U.S. mission in Geneva. "Judge me on what I've done."
Retweets regarding Muslims
The Washington Post reported that Isaacs' comments in the media had suggested that Islam was an intrinsically violent religion and that he denied climate change.
The Post noted an exchange on Twitter in June after a terror attack in London in which Isaacs wrote "this is exactly what the Muslim faith instructs the faithful to do." The newspaper said it received a statement from Isaacs expressing regret for comments that "caused hurt and undermined my professional record."
CNN last week also noted a number of retweets from Isaacs of comments that criticized Muslims.
In the interview Monday, he said: "I have retweeted many things to stimulate conversation. But at the same time ... have never shown discrimination against anybody, for anything."
Climate change comments
As for climate change, the United Nations and many countries have cited scientific studies that underpin their battle against global warming caused by human activity. Isaacs said he backed IOM's strategic efforts, but declined to say if he supported the science pointing to man-made climate change.
"Whether I do or whether I don't does not take away from the fact that climate disasters happen," said Isaacs, adding that he knows "the strategic objectives of IOM in regard to climate change, and I agree with those."
Jennifer Arangio, a senior director for the U.S. National Security Council who sat beside Isaacs, called the U.N. agency a well-intentioned, meaningful and important organization and said the Trump administration wants Washington to remain the world leader in humanitarian assistance — though she didn't elaborate.
She said that the U.S. likes that the IOM's director-general is American, "and we want to hold that place because of our position on humanitarian assistance."