This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Washington • President Donald Trump met last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, but Kislyak's U.S. counterpart was not present.
That's because the United States does not have an ambassador to Russia.
The Trump administration confirmed more than two months ago that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had been offered and accepted the role as America's top envoy to Russia, but the White House has yet to formally nominate him.
A senior White House official told The Salt Lake Tribune recently there was no problem with Huntsman's nomination and noted that vetting, especially with someone who travels internationally as much as Huntsman, takes time.
But with the cloud over the White House of an FBI and Senate investigation into Moscow's meddling in the U.S. presidential election, and whether there was any collusion with the Trump team, Huntsman's nomination may be delayed.
Huntsman was not part of Trump's campaign and after the "Access Hollywood" video emerged of Trump talking about forcing himself on women, Huntsman called for the Republican presidential nominee to leave the ticket. But that may not matter in his Senate confirmation, where the Russia interference would be the main subject.
"If I were him, I wouldn't want to walk into this buzzsaw unless I had some facts about what the heck is going on," said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. "One explanation is that Huntsman is getting cold feet. Or he could be wanting more information."
Huntsman could not be reached for comment; pending nominees rarely talk to the news media before a Senate confirmation. Huntsman did submit the required papers for the ambassadorship in early April.
Painter, who oversaw vetting of some Bush appointees, says it's rare for someone who has already been confirmed three times by the Senate to wait two months for a formal nomination, but other factors may be at play, especially the firestorm of questions about Russia's intrusion in the election and Trump's potential ties.
"I could see some reason for both sides wanting to stand down on that for a little bit of time," Painter said. "Any hearing having to do with Russia is going to be a lightning rod. I don't think Huntsman wants it. I don't think the White House wants it. I don't think the Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee want it."
Another sticking point, Painter said, could be whether Huntsman has any material interest in Huntsman Corp., which operates six businesses in Russia. Huntsman did not have any stake in the company in his last publicly available filing with the federal government when he became the U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.
While Huntsman had no part of the Trump campaign, he still would face questions about the president if he appears before the Foreign Relations Committee.
"This is a very important ambassadorship," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, "and the confirmation hearing would be covered in any event, but this year they'll probably have to get one of the largest hearing rooms because the senators will use this as an opportunity to ask loaded questions about the Trump-Russia relationship. And, on the Democratic side, the questions will be very embarrassing."
There will be no shortage of material, either.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia attempted to sway the election, and Trump's first pick to serve as national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned less than a month into office after misleading White House officials about his contacts with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
Last week, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, whose agency was investigating possible collusion between Trump aides and Russia, and the White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said the White House hoped that by removing Comey, the probe would come to a conclusion.
Of course, the delay in nominating Huntsman also could simply show that the Trump White House is juggling so much that the U.S. ambassador to Russia job isn't a top priority.
"In this White House, incompetence is always a possibility," Sabato said.
The White House Transition Project, which tracks political appointments, says that Trump's nominations and confirmations lag behind his most recent predecessors by six weeks, and overall this White House is the slowest in putting names forward in the past 40 years.
Of the 557 presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation, Trump hasn't named anyone for 460 positions. Of those nominated, 29 have been confirmed, according to a tally kept by The Washington Post. Huntsman has previously been confirmed as deputy trade representative, as ambassador to Singapore and ambassador to China each time without any objection. The one-time presidential candidate now is chairman of the Atlantic Council, a think tank that often is a waiting spot for potential Cabinet officials.
Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at American Progress with a focus on European security and U.S.-Russia policy, says he doubts the Russia-Trump concerns are hampering Huntsman's nomination.
"I don't think it's the cloud, given they're willing to meet" with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Bergmann said. "I can't imagine that. That and also because Huntsman is not in any way implicated."
Bergmann also blames the delay on possible "incompetence," and notes that it's difficult to believe the administration is taking so long to vet Huntsman, given how little screening they did with other appointees. Huntsman also has been vetted multiple times in his past government positions.
"I would assume it just dropped off the radar," Bergmann said. "It's not as if they're sending up a lot of confirmations. We're not swamped with nominees."
Editor's note: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.