Jon Huntsman: is Trump’s new ambassador to Russia a selfless public servant or opportunistic people-pleaser?

Those who have worked with ‘the one sane Republican’ know him as a capable and dedicated people person. But his on-again, off-again love affair with Trump has some critics – and friends – wondering what he really believes

Liberals often describe Jon Huntsman as the one sane Republican. He believes in climate science and leniency for the children of immigrants. A popular two-term governor and former presidential candidate, he’s been an ambassador for presidents on both sides of the aisle and at 57, could do anything with his life.

So why has he signed up to be Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia?

Working for the Trump administration can be a thankless task, as the parade of hirings and firings has made clear. Morale at the hollowed-out state department has hit rock bottom. And – if confirmed – Huntsman will be heading to the very country Trump is accused of colluding with to win his election.

“Frankly, I think he should be diagnosed with acute masochism,” Ana Navarro, his former national Hispanic chair told the Guardian. “He’s rich, happy, has beautiful children and grandchildren and he wants to work for Trump – in Russia of all places!

“I understand wanting to serve your country but that sounds like self-flagellation.”

Skeptics smell opportunism. Friends and family say Huntsman is committed to public service. His daughter, the Fox News media personality Abby Huntsman, asked: “If my dad’s not going to do it, who is?”


26 March 1960 in Redwood City, California


Huntsman worked as a White House staff assistant for Ronald Reagan, and served as an Asia expert for George HW Bush, helping out with his dad’s company in between political stints. At the age of 32, Bush named Huntsman ambassador to Singapore. He later served as US trade representative under George W Bush before returning home to Utah. He was elected governor in 2004 and again, comfortably, in 2008. In 2009, he was appointed by Barack Obama as ambassador to China, and the following year became a national leader for the bipartisan political organization No Labels. In 2012, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He has been chair of the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy thinktank, since 2014.

High point

A successful two-term Republican governor, Huntsman was chosen as ambassador to China by the Obama administration in 2009, a move seen at the time as removing a dangerously good Republican presidential player from the 2012 board. Huntsman took the job, burnishing his foreign policy credentials, and a few years later ran for president anyway.

Low point

Huntsman made an enemy of his fellow Utah Mormon Mitt Romney when he backed John McCain ahead of the 2008 presidential election. Romney served revenge cold four years later, when he trounced Huntsman in the New Hampshire’s first-in-the-country primary. Adding insult: McCain had endorsed Romney just three days earlier, heedless of the political price Huntsman had paid to back McCain over Romney before.

He says

“If you approach things with a sense of civility, stick to the issues, show some respect for the process and the opposition,” Huntsman said in 2012, “when you finally get there, I think more people will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

They say

"I was surprised Jon wanted to be associated with this crazy-train, vulgarian president. He's a painfully civil, proper, soft-spoken good person and dedicated family man. He is the antithesis of Trump. I also think he loves diplomacy and being in the game and feeling like he is contributing. Frankly, I think he should be diagnosed with acute masochism. He's rich, happy, has beautiful children and grandchildren and he wants to work for Trump, in Russia of all places, be in the middle of Trump and Putin? I understand wanting to serve your country but that sounds like self-flagellation." – Ana Navarro, Republican strategist and Huntsman’s former national Hispanic chairperson, to the Guardian on 28 July 2017.

Born into a Mormon family in Redwood City, California, and raised in Utah, Huntsman grew up with certain advantages. His father is Jon Huntsman Sr, a former Nixon administration official and businessman whose role in creating the “clamshell” container for Big Macs helped make him one of the richest men in America.

The younger Huntsman got his rebellious streak ironed out early, dropping out of his Salt Lake City high school to play keyboards in a prog rock band. Later, he attended the University of Utah before leaving to be a Mormon missionary in Taiwan for two years, and later graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in international politics.

Missionary work set Huntsman on the path of diplomacy: he developed a deep interest in Chinese culture and learned some Mandarin, and eventually went on to serve as an Asia expert for George W Bush. At 32, he was named ambassador to Singapore.

When George W Bush became president in 2001, Huntsman served as deputy US trade representative before returning home to Utah for a gubernatorial bid in 2004. Upon election, he earned a reputation as a popular, tax-cutting governor, and coasted to reelection in 2008 with more than 77% of the vote.

His first taste of the presidential campaign scene came in 2008 when, after initially advising Mitt Romney – a fellow Mormon from Utah – on foreign policy, he ultimately sided with John McCain.

Huntsman ran for president in 2012.
Huntsman ran for president in 2012. Photograph: Adam Hunger/Reuters

It wasn’t the last time Huntsman would show a willingness to flout conventions of political loyalty. When Obama offered Huntsman the role of ambassador to China he didn’t hesitate to go to work for a Democrat, at one point writing to the president: “You are a remarkable leader – and it has been a great honor getting to know you.” (The word “remarkable” was underlined for emphasis.)

In that letter, some saw a hint of something else: a willingness to flatter people in power. In a subsequent letter to Bill Clinton, Huntsman heaped praise on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I must report that Secretary Clinton has won the hearts and minds of the State Department bureaucracy – no easy task,” he wrote. “And after watching her in action, I can see why. She is well-read, hard-working, personable and has even more charisma than her husband! It’s an honor to work with her.”

That was back when he was ambassador to China. But the the feeling was mutual: in Democratic circles and beyond, he was widely regarded as an effective diplomat, less technocrat than people person.

Such skills were on display in Beijing one Saturday morning, in January 2011, when Huntsman was summoned to the headquarters of China’s foreign ministry to discuss then president Hu Jintao’s impending state visit to the US.

“I came over in an embassy car, wearing a coat and tie,” recalled Robert Goldberg, Huntsman’s deputy chief of mission. “Jon showed up riding his [Mao era] ‘Flying Pigeon’ [bicycle] and wearing a sweater, loafers and his trademark leather jacket.”

Unable to fathom that the man on the bike might possibly be the US ambassador, security guards initially barred him from the government compound. Once inside, however, Huntsman’s unconventional entrance paid off.

“The Chinese statement following his arrival took perhaps two minutes; the discussion about bikes and the dangers of riding in the streets of Beijing occupied us for the better part of 30,” Goldberg said.

“Jon was able to make a connection that took the Chinese out of their ‘all business’ mode and establish rapport with [China’s then vice foreign minister] Cui [Tiankai] that eased some of the difficult moments that planning for high level visits generate.”

It was a tense time for US-China relations, recalled Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador in Beijing from 2007 until 2013. China had been accused of scuppering US attempts to secure a bold climate change deal in Copenhagen and, in January 2010, the White House infuriated Beijing by approving what China called an “odious” $6bn arms sale to Taiwan.

“He was put in the freezer,” Guajardo said. “It’s not easy being any country’s ambassador when the Chinese want to put you in the freezer.”

Yet for all the frictions with his host country, Guajardo remembers Huntsman as an amiable and popular ambassador famed for reaching out to his diplomatic counterparts, irrespective of their country’s size: “He was the type of ambassador who made a point of personally getting to know others. He didn’t just sit on the fact that he was a US ambassador.”

Those bonafides held him in good stead when he ran for the Republican candidacy in 2012.

John Huntsman.
Huntsman in his trademark leather jacket. Photograph: Adam Hunger/Reuters

Huntsman’s campaign message – focussed on bipartisan solutions and civility – could hardly have been further from Trump’s.

Little wonder then that Huntsman’s stilted line-dance toward Trump before the 2016 election (two steps forward, one step back, then forward again), has been viewed with some skepticism.

Eight days after saying he’d vote for Trump, Huntsman called for him to leave the race when a recording emerged in which Trump bragged about sexual assault. Once Trump was elected, though, like many Republicans, Huntsman warmed to him again.

The embrace hasn’t gone over well with everyone.Guajardo said he was sad his friend was throwing his lot in with Trump. “[Huntsman] is not a Russia man,” he said. “He brings nothing other than his name to the equation. And he is going to soil it by associating it with Trump.”

But Huntsman has suggested that his experience in China would be useful in Russia. “There are elements of big power relationships that are similar and the way that large, complex embassies function is also similar,” he said at a recent Atlantic Council dinner.

In an interview, his daughter Abby emphasized parallels in the two country’s communist pasts. “He studied that for a long time and he spent so many years living overseas. Having to deal with Beijing and some of the leaders over there – it’s not easy,” she said. “I think going to Russia will be similar in a lot of ways – but also a whole new challenge for him.”

He certainly has his work cut out.

Huntsman is keen to get to Moscow as soon as possible, and if all goes smoothly, his arrival in the Russian capital is expected in the second week of September.

Given the Russia scandal engulfing the Trump administration, it was already going to be an unusually delicate posting. But it became a lot more complicated this week when the president grudgingly approved a new package of sanctions on Russia days after the Kremlin ordered the US to dramatically cut its diplomatic staff by 1 September.

Huntsman will arrive in Russia to an American diplomatic presence reduced to a third of its current size.

But in addition to making do with a skeleton staff, Huntsman will have to navigate a hostile political climate in which Russian authorities are suspicious of anyone who meets with western, particularly American, diplomats.

After the tumultuous tenure of Michael McFaul – an academic and Russia specialist who tried to reach out to Russians on social media and in person, but was harassed by Russian state media and accused of trying to foment revolution – the state department sent John Tefft to replace him in 2014.

Tefft, a smooth career diplomat, was seen as a safe pair of hands, and came out of retirement to take up the post. But Tefft leaves Moscow with relations perhaps almost even more perilously placed than when he arrived.

Which brings us back to the question: what does Jon Huntsman think he’s doing? To hear his daughter tell it, it doesn’t matter what he thinks. “I think once Trump won, my dad said ‘I want the best for this country’. And I wish more people had that perspective.”


Lucia Graves in Washington, Tom Phillips in Beijing and Shaun Walker in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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