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Washington • President Donald Trump on Tuesday formally nominated former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Russia, an announcement that comes months after White House officials confirmed Huntsman had been offered and accepted the job.
It was unclear what caused the delay in sending the official nomination to the Senate, but the ongoing investigations of Russia's meddling in the presidential election and whether Trump associates colluded with Moscow officials could have slowed down the appointment.
The White House announcement, sent at 4:59 p.m. MST, came 30 minutes after The Washington Post reported that Trump had a second, unannounced hourlong meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. A White House official pushed back, saying that it was an informal, brief chat at a dinner with heads of state.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 through 2014, called Huntsman a "terrific choice."
"Ambassador Huntsman already has experience serving his country in a strategic country," McFaul said Tuesday night. "His [resume] businessman, politician, government official will appeal to Russians. The one unknown is his relationship with the president. Having worked three years at the White House, I benefited greatly from having a close relationship with President Obama. If confirmed, Ambassador Huntsman will need to build his ties to the White House."
The Senate has confirmed Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and Singapore and deputy U.S. trade representative, three times previously without a single objection, though his nomination hearing this time could focus, in part, on questions about Russia's intrusion into the election.
Huntsman was not involved in the Trump campaign and had at one point, suggested Trump step down from the GOP ticket, but the former Utah governor's hearing could open another opportunity for Democrats and administration critics in the Senate to question Russia connections to Trump and his aides.
The White House said in March that Huntsman would take the ambassadorship, and a senior administration official said a month later that Huntsman's frequent international travel could be the reason the vetting was dragging on. The official said there were no hiccups expected in Huntsman's appointment.
Huntsman would serve as America's top envoy to Moscow at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are strained not only because of the FBI and congressional probes, but heightened diplomatic and military tensions between the two superpowers.
Huntsman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
His wife, Mary Kaye, posted a photo from 1992 when they were on a flight to Moscow. She wrote: "Couldn't be more thrilled for this outstanding diplomat who no doubt will make America extremely proud."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised Huntsman's nomination as a "wise choice" by the president. "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," Hatch said in a statement.
Rep. Chris Stewart, the only Utahn on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted, "Happy that Jon Huntsman"s nomination as U.S. ambassador to Russia is (finally) moving forward. He's a great choice. America needs him!"
The White House's announcement misspelled Huntsman's first name as John.
Editor's Note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of former Gov. Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune