As had been periodically leaked over the past several weeks, overnight both Poliico and the WSJ confirm that President Trump has offered former Utah governor Jon Huntsman the job of U.S. ambassador to Russia and is in the process of submitting paperwork to accept the position; Huntsman is said to have accepted the offer. This is the latest sign of backtracking from plans for Washington-Moscow conciliation, a development which will make future reports based on "anonymous sources" that Trump is a Kremlin puppet even more problematic.
The 56-year-old Mr. Huntsman’s long record in politics and diplomacy—as governor of Utah and ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and to China under President Barack Obama—likely will assure him of an easy confirmation in Congress. Huntsman, who served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and then to China under President Barack Obama, was an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump during last year's campaign.
Last October, Huntsman—who ran for president as a Republican in 2012—called on Trump to withdraw after a 2005 Access Hollywood video surfaced in which he bragged about his ability to sexually assault beautiful women. But Huntsman has since warmed to the president and the two have maintained a cordial relationship, according to a source with knowledge of their recent conversations. "It's a bit bizarre because he was so anti-Trump last year," said one source close to the administration. "But it's also a smart choice, because he really knows his [stuff]."
The Russian ambassador position is viewed as one of the most sensitive and high profile ambassadorships, especially given the FBI and congressional investigations into Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparent efforts to tip last year's election in his favor and contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Should Huntsman accept and be confirmed as ambassador, Politico notes that it could come as a relief to Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, 82, who is up for reelection next year. Huntsman has been seen as a potential challenger.
Regarding Huntsman's views on Russia, the WSJ adds that the former governor lately served as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank deeply critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and plans to patch up relations with him. Some of Mr. Trump’s protégés have come under fire for too-close ties to the Kremlin, but Mr. Huntsman—a critic of Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign—will add to a stable of advisers who have openly disagreed with the president’s proposed Russia policies.
Last week the White House said it would tap Fiona Hill, a highly regarded Russia scholar with a "sober view" of Mr. Putin, to be the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia. Her boss at the NSC, Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, is likewise a skeptic of U.S. rapprochement with the Kremlin, based on his past comments and views of those who know him.
With the appointment, Trump is clearly seeking to distance himself of being viewed as openly friendly toward Russia. Trump has complained about criticism of his advisers’ conversations with Russian officials and about leaks suggesting some of them are too close to Russia. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign after questions arose about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak.
With pressure ratcheted up on his administration, Mr. Trump may be looking for a nominee who won’t create waves, said one former State Department official.
“Trump is bending to the critics of his efforts to have warmer relations with the Russians,” said the former official, who served under President George W. Bush. “He has selected a high-profile establishment Republican who is unlikely to face significant problems getting confirmed.”
In Moscow, he said, the selection will be viewed with “some skepticism and maybe concern.”