Jon Huntsman, whom Trump once called 'lightweight,' picked as ambassador to Russia

Once trashed on Twitter by U.S. President Donald Trump for being the ambassador who "gave away our country to China," Jon Huntsman might seem, at first blush, to be an unlikely choice to assume an even more sensitive foreign diplomatic gig.

Moderate Republican had presidential hopes in 2012, served in Obama administration

A combination photo shows former 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump. The president has chosen Huntsman, with whom he has had a testy relationship, as his ambassador to Russia, a choice that surprised some analysts. (David Goldman/Associated Press, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It wasn't long ago that Jon Huntsman took Twitter potshots from Donald Trump, who trashed him as "a lightweight" diplomat who "gave away our country to China." Five years on, Huntsman's former online troll is entrusting him with an even more sensitive diplomatic role abroad. 

In Russia.

The White House announced Wednesday that the U.S. president has tapped Huntsman, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a respected former ambassador to China during the Barack Obama administration, to be America's man in Moscow. If confirmed, it would be his third ambassadorship, after having served in Singapore during the George H.W. Bush administration. 

He'll need to figure out what the Trump policy towards Russia even is.- Daniel  Treisman , UCLA

The Russia posting is an unenviable one. The Trump administration faces FBI and congressional investigations into the Kremlin's possible meddling in the U.S. election, as well as allegations that people in Trump's campaign communicated with Russian officials during the race.

In that regard, Huntsman would inherit "a highly thankless job," says Daniel Treisman, a professor of Russian and Eurasian politics at the University of California Los Angeles.

"The only interpretation I can come up with is that he has a deep sense of public duty," he says. "It's extremely tough. It's clearly not something one would do out of ambition, given how likely it is there will be more embarrassing revelations."

Atmosphere of 'mutual suspicion'

Treisman sees major challenges ahead for Huntsman. For one, "he'll need to figure out what the Trump policy towards Russia even is," as the president's rosier view of the Kremlin is at odds with those of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis.
U.S. President Donald Trump has picked as his ambassador to Russia former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, with whom he has publicly feuded. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Were further details about the Trump campaign's relationship with Russian officials to emerge, Huntsman will have to manage potential controversies while keeping relations afloat.

Meanwhile, there's the matter of Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparently deliberate actions to test his new American counterpart.

In recent weeks, a Russian spy ship has been spotted patrolling 112 kilometres off the coast of Delaware; low-flying Russian fighter jets were photographed buzzing the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea; and the Kremlin has denied it violated an arms treaty by deploying cruise missiles.

"All the trajectories are not encouraging," says Catherine Dale, director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia at the RAND Corp., a policy think-tank. "By any measure, this climate is a difficult one. The whole atmosphere is one of mutual suspicion as well as frustration."

Huntsman will have to manage potential controversies while keeping relations with the Kremlin afloat. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Yet the provocative actions have done little to crack a veneer of blithe unconcern from Trump. He has restated his desire to restore relations with Putin.

Enter Huntsman, expected to be a critical player towards determining whether that's the wisest approach.

"The first thing we need in the ambassador role is a good, clear vision for a future bilateral U.S.-Russia relationship — something that protects the U.S. interests and is plausible from a Russian perspective," Dale says.

Simply calling Russia a friend or foe "is probably not going to work," Dale says.

Huntsman wouldn't 'suck up' to Trump

The selection of Huntsman is curious considering the 56-year-old former Utah governor's unease with Trump, a man who puts a premium on loyalty. 

While Trump has been known to reward his devotees with jobs in his inner circle, those who have wronged him in the past have been shunted aside. 

Trump and Huntsman have tangled in the past. A tiff grew between them in 2012. Trump mocked Huntsman for his Mormon faith and characterized him as a weak diplomat. Huntsman refused to participate in a debate Trump wanted to sponsor in Iowa, with a spokesperson saying in a news release Huntsman would refuse to "suck up to The Donald." 

With that history in mind, Huntsman makes for "a surprising choice" for the Moscow posting, says former U.S. ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering. 

"He's an excellent pick. A strong individual," Pickering says. "But we all know, in fact, that Mr. Huntsman was criticized very strongly by Mr. Trump and was — let's put it this way — not the foremost fan of Mr. Trump's."

Huntsman served in Obama administration

Huntsman leaves the stage with his wife and family after announcing the end of his presidential campaign in January 2012. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

After initially endorsing Trump last year, Huntsman came out against his presidential bid after a 2005 hot-mic tape leaked from Access Hollywood in which Trump boasted about sexually predatory behaviour. Huntsman urged Trump to step down and let his running mate replace him. 

"In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom — at such a critical moment for our nation — and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Gov. [Mike] Pence to lead the ticket," Huntsman told the Salt Lake Tribune. 

Even before that point, Huntsman didn't win favour among his Republican Party by serving under Obama. Nor did he score points for praising Obama in a handwritten letter as a "remarkable leader," and lavishing Hillary Clinton in another letter as a charismatic diplomat who had "won the hearts and minds" of staff she led at the State Department. 

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering is shown in a 1998 file photo. Pickering says the selection of Jon Huntsman to be the next ambassador to Russia is an 'excellent' choice, though he admits he was surprised that Trump would pick someone with whom he has formerly had an adversarial relationship. (Reuters)

Though Hunstman has drawn the ire of both Democrats and Republicans in the past, Pickering's view is that his adaptability and demeanour will lend much-needed "maturity" to the administration's policy on Russia. That kind of presence will be vital to counteracting "loose talk from both sides about nuclear weapons." 

[ Resestting relations with Russia is like] a  Potemkin  village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is.- Jon Huntsman's 2012 presidential campaign website

Amid a presidency afflicted by "alternative facts" and sketchy news sources, the retired diplomat says, "Huntsman will bring a calming factor, a reassuring factor, and he'll be someone who can assess and convey reality."

In Russia, meanwhile, news of Huntsman's appointment stirred anxiety from one politician who described him as a hawkish presence in the new administration.

In an interview with Reuters from Moscow, senator Alexei Pushkov expressed unease about Huntsman's work with the Atlantic Council foreign-policy think tank, of which Huntsman serves as chair of the board of directors.

"He is definitely not a dove," the Russian parliamentarian said of Huntsman, according to Reuters. Pushkov described the nonpartisan Washington-based Atlantic Council as an organization "where harsh criticism of Russia has become the norm."

During his 2012 presidential bid, Huntsman invoked a Russian historical myth to knock Obama's efforts to reboot relations with Russia, describing the policy as bearing the hallmarks of a superficial effort that would mask the Kremlin's ugly approach to democracy.

His old campaign website stated the reset effort would be "like a Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbours."

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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