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Washington • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has accepted President Donald Trump's offer to become ambassador to Russia, according to a senior White House official.
It is one of the more challenging roles in the administration now under fire for its ties to the country whose government, U.S. intelligence agencies say, attempted to hijack the American presidential election in Trump's favor.
Huntsman, a skilled diplomat who has served as the U.S. envoy to Singapore and China, would be the first Utahn to take a top role in the Trump administration should he be confirmed by the Senate, and a posting to Moscow would put the one-time presidential candidate in the center of U.S.-Russian relations at one of the highest points of tension since the Cold War.
He had been considering a 2018 campaign against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a key Trump ally in the Senate. Huntsman huddled with Hatch in the Capitol on Tuesday and the long-time senator heralded Trump's choice Wednesday.
"President Trump has made a wise choice in selecting Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to serve as the next United States ambassador to Russia," said Hatch, who has not ruled out running for an eighth term. "He possesses the savvy, grace and tact characteristic of our nation's top diplomats, and I am confident he will continue serving our country well as the next ambassador to Russia."
Trump, who previously considered Huntsman and Mitt Romney for secretary of state before picking Rex Tillerson, has instead picked the former Utah governor to head a mission nearly as critical: speaking for the United States in a country that many in Congress view as an adversary but that the president has promised to put on more friendlier terms.
While it's unclear if the FBI or the Justice Department is probing Trump's ties to Russia or that of his campaign team, the multiple confirmed contacts between Trump world and Russia have the GOP-led House and Senate intelligence committees conducting their own probes.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he will recuse himself from any such investigations after admitting that he had twice met with the Russian ambassador despite saying under oath to a Senate hearing that he had not met with any Russian officials.
With the administration under fire over its ties to Russia, Huntsman should be prepared for anything, said Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Judging by the past couple of months, it is likely that things will change a lot during his tenure over there, so he better be flexible and ready for surprises," said Treisman, who focuses on Russian politics. "The kind of problems he will have to deal with will be unusually difficult."
It benefits Huntsman that he's served as an ambassador previously, and Treisman said the relationship between Russia and China has become more important, so Huntsman's deep knowledge about China will come in handy, as will his knowledge of cyber warfare.
But Huntsman will need to learn quickly about the Kremlin and the key people outside of government, said the professor.
"He'll have to be very thoughtful in navigating in what are really perilous waters at the moment," Treisman said.
While Huntsman, who is now chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, is best known as an expert on U.S.-China relations, he has a long history of working with Russia. His father's company, Huntsman International LLC, currently has six businesses inside Russia and has been operating in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Senate has confirmed Huntsman without objection for all three of his federal government appointments, including a stint as deputy U.S. trade representative in 2001. He left his post as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China to run for president.
During that bid, Huntsman was critical of Russia, comparing Obama's effort to reset relations with Russia to 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." He added that the U.S.-Russian relationship should be viewed "with more objective eyes."
Huntsman had been critical of Trump during the 2016 presidential race, particularly after a video leaked showing the Republican making lewd comments toward women. But since Trump's victory, Huntsman has said the unorthodox president has an opportunity to shake up Washington in a way that would benefit the nation.
Tribune editor Matt Canham contributed to this report.
Editor's note: The Salt Lake Tribune is owned and published by Paul Huntsman, the brother of former Gov. Jon Huntsman.