Trump Seeks to Allay Russia Criticism with New Ambassador

Jon Huntsman, a former governor and ambassador, is the latest Vladimir Putin critic to join the administration.

Former ambassador Jon Huntsman gives a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, April 29, 2014
Former ambassador Jon Huntsman gives a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, April 29, 2014 (ImageLink Photography/Dennis Kan)

Former China ambassador Jon Huntsman is the latest Russia hawk to join the Donald Trump Administration.

If confirmed by the Senate, Huntsman would succeed John F. Tefft as the American ambassador in Moscow.

Other appointments sure to trouble the Kremlin include Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster and the White House senior director for Europe and Russia, Fiona Hill. All have been critical of Vladimir Putin.

Their elevations may be a way for Trump to allay criticism of ties between his advisors and Russia.

“Lightweight”

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah who now chairs the Atlantic Council, hasn’t exactly been in Trump’s favor.

When he served as ambassador in Beijing, Huntsman was called a “lightweight” and “weak” by Trump, who also claimed that China “did a major number on us.”

When Huntsman was a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2012, Trump refused to even meet with him, tweeting, “He gave away our country to China!”

Huntsman was initially supportive of Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election but reversed himself after a 2005 videotape emerged in which the property mogul could be overheard making inappropriate comments about women. Huntsman subsequently called for Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, to head the Republican ticket.

Safe pick

What may have changed Trump’s mind is that Huntsman defended the president-elect’s phone call with the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, in December.

When much of the foreign-policy community denounced Trump for throwing doubt on the One-China policy, Huntsman stood by him. “I’m sure he’s got a broader strategy,” he said.

Huntsman is also a safe pick in light of congressional and FBI investigations into the Trump team’s ties to Russia.

Contacts with Russian officials have already forced Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, to resign and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from an investigation.

The perception of close ties between the Trump Administration and Moscow is all the more disturbing given activities undertaken by Russia in recent weeks to harass American military power. These include sending a spy ship off the coast of Delaware, buzzing a Navy destroyer in the Black Sea with fighter jets and deploying cruise missiles in violation of an arms treaty.

Clear-eyed

As ambassador, Huntsman could be at a disadvantage. He is not an expert on Russia and doesn’t speak the language. But he is likely to take a clear-eyed approach.

During the 2012 campaign, Huntsman criticized Barack Obama’s “reset” policy, arguing, “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.”

At a time when Putin is flexing Russia’s military muscle in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the appointment of a Russia critic and realist like Huntsman seems like one of the most reasonable decisions taken by this administration to date.

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