Donald Trump once slammed former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman as a "lightweight" and accused him of “[giving] away our country to China” when he was the US ambassador there. Now, Trump has decided to reward him with the toughest diplomatic gig in Washington today: US ambassador to Russia.
If confirmed, Huntsman will be tasked with representing US interests in the most complicated foreign relationship that the nation has today. Trump’s White House is being battered by an ever-intensifying storm of investigations and criticism for its links to and possible collusion with Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Indeed, the White House’s announcement of Huntsman’s nomination on Tuesday was largely overshadowed when, around the same time, the White House was forced to issue a statement addressing reports that Trump had a previously undisclosed meeting with Putin at the G20 summit earlier in July with no other US staff present.
Yet the president is still bent on turning over a new leaf with Moscow and finding a way to improve relations.
Which means that Huntsman will have to find a way to advocate effectively for US interests in the US-Russia relationship, despite the fact that his boss is hemorrhaging political capital daily and that he stands accused of possibly colluding with the very country that meddled with the US presidential election.
He also has to help sort out huge, complex clashes between Washington and Moscow over Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine and longstanding tensions over US sanctions on Russia.
Huntsman isn’t the typical rough-around-the-edges Trump outsider
Huntsman is known as a moderate conservative technocrat who ran a sleepy presidential campaign in 2012. He has significant diplomatic experience under both parties: He served as US ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush and as ambassador to China under Obama.
Trump slammed Huntsman’s performance as Chinese ambassador in 2012, saying that China “did a number on us” under Huntsman’s tenure. He’s also called him “weak” and a “lightweight” on Twitter.
China did a major number on us during the reign of @JonHuntsman. He was easy pickens!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2012
Huntsman hasn’t always been fond of Trump in the past either. He’s criticized his behavior and called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race after the emergence of a video in which Trump was caught on a hot mic bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Trump seems to be willing to overlook their past disagreements, at least for now. But, if he’s confirmed, Huntsman will be working closely with Trump on a vital — and incredibly fraught — geopolitical relationship. Whether those old tensions will prove to be an obstacle when the pressure is on remains to be seen.
Huntsman’s past experience with high-profile diplomacy and the fact that he’s more of a technocrat than an ideologue likely bodes well for his performance as an emissary. He knows what it means to try to pick up on cultural and political nuances in a foreign environment, and he’s likely to embrace the flexibility needed to handle the White House’s habitual inconsistency on policy matters. He was more naturally well-suited for China — he speaks Mandarin — but he will have plenty of senior foreign service officers and translators that will help him adjust to Russia swiftly.
The fact that Huntsman is a political appointee rather than a career diplomat is also important — and it signals to Russia that Trump is taking his relationship with Moscow seriously.
“The default path would have been to send a career person to Moscow; that's been the rule for most of the past several decades,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told me. “If the president picks a political appointee, it reflects the importance of that relationship, and that's generally something that gives the new ambassador more cachet and more influence in his post.”
Huntsman does seem to fit into at least two major trends in Trump’s high-profile administration picks. First, he comes from an extremely wealthy background. His father runs a huge chemical firm — Huntsman Corp. — and is estimated to have a net worth of around a billion dollars. Second, according the Washington Post, Huntsman has traveled to Russia with regard to interests that his family business has there — which is likely to open yet another set of questions about potential conflict of interests in the White House.
Huntsman is a fairly prudent pick by a reckless administration. He’s got his work cut out for him.