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Jon Huntsman, Trump’s pick for Russia ambassador, is a baffling choice

Jon Huntsman Hosts Inaugural Installment Of SiriusXM's 'No Labels Radio With Jon Huntsman' (Larry French/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has been tapped to be President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia. And that is very, very strange.

Huntsman isn’t a Russia expert, or anything close. President Barack Obama appointed Huntsman, a Republican, to serve as ambassador to China in his first term because Huntsman speaks Mandarin and had lived in Taiwan. But he doesn’t speak Russian and he’s never spent any time living in Russia. He’s never held a position where he had to deal with Russian officials regularly or really ever had much to say about the US-Russia relationship at all.

The Huntsman pick also doesn’t make any sense for Trump ideologically.

Reports of Huntsman’s appointment — which appeared first in Politico on Wednesday evening, and was quickly confirmed by Fox News and CNN — were greeted with approval from mainstream foreign policy observers, because he has a reputation as a thoughtful, well-informed centrist. He’s the leader of the “No Labels” political organization, which is dedicated to centrist, bipartisan policymaking above all else. There’s no evidence that he shares the pro-Russia views of many Trump associates like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and, it seems, Trump himself.

Nor does Huntsman make sense as a Trump pick on a personal or political level. Though Huntsman backed Trump for most of the campaign, he turned on him after the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape went public in October, calling on Trump to drop out. For Huntsman, that was part of a broader history of turning on erstwhile political benefactors: After Obama appointed him China ambassador, Huntsman ran to be Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential election, and continued to criticize the president’s foreign policy after he lost.

Ambassador to Russia is an absolutely critical position for the Trump White House, given the host of never-ending Russia scandals engulfing the administration. Yet they’ve just appointed a fickle politician with no special Russia expertise and a history of disloyalty to the post.

There’s no way to slice this that makes any sense.

Huntsman has little expertise on Russia, and his instincts aren’t Trump’s

Jon Huntsman Bows Out Of Presidential Race (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The US ambassador to Russia has, historically, been an expert on Russia or European affairs. Obama’s two choices were Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor and widely recognized Russia expert, and John F. Tefft, a career State Department diplomat whose work focused on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Huntsman does not fit that mold, to say the least. There’s no evidence in his personal or professional life that he has any special expertise on Russia; the closest is a stint, from 2014 to the present, as the chair of the Atlantic Council, a Europe-focused think tank.

But even then, Huntsman appears to have said very little on Russian affairs. A Lexis-Nexis search of all major news sources between 2000 and November 2016 found scant comments of substance on Russia from Huntsman. The most interesting comment came during an appearance on Fox Business, where he argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “upstaging” Obama in the Middle East and “double-downing basically on a bad policy” by backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

When Huntsman ran for the 2012 Republican primary nomination, he had similarly little to say on Russia. A review of every primary debate Huntsman participated in turned up zero comments on the US-Russian relationship. The most substantive comment was a two-paragraph statement on his old campaign website. In it, he argues that Russia is a strategic adversary, and that the Obama administration’s “reset” policy erred by whitewashing Russia’s record on human rights:

The Obama Administration’s Russia Reset policy is a bad approach because it rests on a foundation of falsehoods. It’s a Potemkin policy. Working with Russia to develop a more cooperative relationship is needed, but we should not make that relationship one that mirrors 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 neighbors than it is. When we do that, as President Obama has done, we are undercutting those in Russia who see a democratic future for their country. We communicate tolerance for its hegemonic policies including toward Georgia (which it still occupies) and Ukraine. We undercut our criticism of despots elsewhere in the world.

We can nonetheless find productive ways to work with Russia if we view the relationship with more objective eyes. A global agenda for the U.S.-Russian relationship can be successful because we can focus on issues that leverage Russian power: arms control, Iran (UNSC) and America’s need in Afghanistan.

It’s worth noting that these comments, scant as they are, run precisely contrary to things that Trump has said. Trump has argued that the US should consider working with Assad in Syria too, and that American criticism of Russia’s human rights record is hypocritical because “we've got a lot of killers” in America.

So Huntsman does not appear particularly suited for the job on grounds of Russia expertise or as someone well-equipped to articulate the president’s worldview regarding the Kremlin.

His experience as ambassador to China (and ambassador to Singapore during the first Bush and Clinton administrations) certainly is relevant experience — clearly, the guy knows how to run an embassy. But that doesn’t entirely explain why Trump would give him what’s arguably the most sensitive diplomatic post in the Trump administration.

Trump is taking a huge risk

Trump is known to value loyalty fairly highly. It’s why he appointed Michael Flynn, an early and vocal backer, to be his first national security adviser — despite the demonstrated history of erratic behavior that would end up getting Flynn fired.

Huntsman was ahead of most establishment Republicans in signaling openness to Trump in 2016, saying that he could see himself backing Trump as early as February. So you could see the pick as Trump rewarding a prominent backer who also has relevant experience as an ambassador — a not-totally implausible argument for the pick.

Except there’s no real reason to believe that Huntsman will remain true to Trump. The two men have tension going back years, and Huntsman’s own history leaves little reason for faith.

Huntsman is strongly in favor of free trade. He served as a deputy US trade representative for the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003, where he helped bring China into the World Trade Organization — a move that Trump has blamed for the loss of American manufacturing jobs. During a 2011 Republican primary debate, Huntsman went out of his way to attack Trump (who was not a candidate back then) by name on the issue.

“I don't subscribe to the Don Trump school … of international trade. I don't want to find ourselves in a trade war,” Huntsman said.

In response, Trump blasted Huntsman on Twitter as a “lightweight” who “gave away our country to China:”

Combine this history with Huntsman’s record of turning on past political allies — running against Obama in the 2012 campaign and un-endorsing Trump after the tape — and it should be clear that the political-personal logic for the pick doesn’t hold water. Huntsman isn’t an ideological Trumpist, either on Russia or anything else, and he isn’t willing to back Trump when he gets thrown into a tight corner.

The ambassador to Russia is a vital position. As Trump’s representative to Moscow, he’ll be in the loop for all top-level diplomacy between the White House and the Kremlin. He’ll also be in a good position to learn whatever secrets Trump is keeping about his connections to Putin, as it will be literally his job to manage the relationship between the administration and the Russian government.

It’s easy to the sort of people that would likely gravitate to Huntsman’s office — centrists with very un-Trump worldviews — becoming another source of the leaks about Russia that have bedeviled the Trump administration so far. It’s also easy to imagine Huntsman resigning and then talking about things that he learned about Trump’s Russia ties in press interviews.

Given his political history, Huntsman poses a uniquely high risk to Trump as Russia ambassador. The president has seemingly taken a very large leap of faith.