Why Jon Huntsman Is Taking the Slow Road to Russia

It’s been three months since Huntsman reportedly accepted the ambassadorship, but his nomination has yet to be sent to the Senate.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Alex Rogers and George E. Condon Jr.
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Alex Rogers and George E. Condon Jr.
June 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

It took less than two months for Jon Hunts­man to be con­firmed as Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush’s am­bas­sad­or to Singa­pore. It took few­er than three months for Hunts­man to be con­firmed as Pres­id­ent Obama’s am­bas­sad­or to China. It has already been three months since Hunts­man re­portedly ac­cep­ted Pres­id­ent Trump’s of­fer to be am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia, yet his nom­in­a­tion hasn’t even been of­fi­cially an­nounced and sent to the Sen­ate for con­sid­er­a­tion.

The pres­id­ent has broadly blamed Demo­crats for the slow pace of con­firm­ing nom­in­a­tions to seni­or po­s­i­tions. “Dems are tak­ing forever to ap­prove my people, in­clud­ing Am­bas­sad­ors,” he tweeted on June 5. “They are noth­ing but OB­STRUC­TION­ISTS! Want ap­provals.”

But the White House’s lack­a­dais­ic­al pace in at­tempt­ing to fill hun­dreds of key gov­ern­ment po­s­i­tions has been so slow that even Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill have privately mur­mured that the White House shares much of the blame with Demo­crats. Mean­while, Demo­crats and some out­side policy ex­perts see more dan­ger­ous motives, such as an in­ten­tion­al ef­fort to cripple agen­cies as part of an anti-gov­ern­ment agenda, point­ing to state­ments like White House chief strategist Steph­en Ban­non’s call for the “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­trat­ive state” in Feb­ru­ary.

Along with the po­ten­tial con­tro­versy that now at­taches to any­thing Rus­sia-re­lated, the Hunts­man pick also re­flects the arth­rit­is plaguing the White House’s broad­er nom­in­a­tion pro­cess. That’s es­pe­cially true at the State De­part­ment, which has filled few­er than 10 po­s­i­tions out of the 120 seni­or posts con­firmed by the Sen­ate and tracked by The Wash­ing­ton Post and the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice.

In in­ter­views, Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats praised the pres­id­ent’s pick of Hunts­man as am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia, but neither Sen. Bob Cork­er, the chair­man of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, nor the top Demo­crat on the pan­el, Sen. Ben Cardin, could ex­plain the White House’s delay.

The same day as the pres­id­ent’s tweet, Cork­er told Na­tion­al Journ­al that he had “no idea” about the status of the Hunts­man nom­in­a­tion, and would talk to Sec­ret­ary of State Rex Tiller­son about it that night. On June 6, Cork­er said he in­quired about the post, and “we just don’t have his pa­per­work yet.”

“I don’t know wheth­er it’s be­ing held up at the White House or not, but it hasn’t come to us yet,” he ad­ded. “He’s got a lot of folks that haven’t quite made it in yet.”

It seems clear that Hunts­man, who was un­an­im­ously con­firmed for his two pre­vi­ous am­bas­sad­or­ships, would get bi­par­tis­an sup­port. While not want­ing to “pre­judge” the nom­in­a­tion pro­cess, Cardin said the former Utah gov­ernor had “great ex­per­i­ence” and “might be the right per­son” for the post. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she “would think” Hunts­man would get Demo­crat­ic sup­port too, not­ing that he had ex­per­i­ence in for­eign policy and a re­cord of ser­vice in the pub­lic sec­tor.

“I’m glad that some­body like Jon Hunts­man is in­ter­ested in serving in­side this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Sen. Chris Murphy. “But his chal­lenges will be equally weighted in Wash­ing­ton as they will be in Mo­scow.”

Rather than Demo­crat­ic ob­struc­tion, the White House might be slow­ing down the nom­in­a­tion as Con­gress weighs passing Rus­sia-sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion against the wishes of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to former and cur­rent con­gres­sion­al aides. The nom­in­ee would also have to an­swer ques­tions in an open hear­ing about U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions in the middle of con­gres­sion­al and law en­force­ment in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to po­ten­tial col­lu­sion between the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia in the 2016 elec­tion.

“My sense is that this might just be an is­sue that is too polit­ic­al for the White House right now and they don’t want to move on it,” said a Rus­si­an-af­fairs ex­pert at a prom­in­ent Wash­ing­ton think tank.

A spokes­per­son for Hunts­man did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest. A State De­part­ment spokes­per­son re­ferred ques­tions to the White House.

The White House privately is blam­ing the delay on the need to fully vet Hunts­man’s busi­ness con­nec­tions and his ex­tens­ive in­ter­na­tion­al travel. While they are aware that a con­firm­a­tion hear­ing on his nom­in­a­tion would in­ev­it­ably get en­tangled in on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions and ques­tions about ex­ist­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia, they con­tend that is not the reas­on for the slow pace.

One of the areas un­der scru­tiny is the former gov­ernor’s in­volve­ment in Hunts­man Corp., which The Salt Lake Tribune re­por­ted op­er­ates six busi­nesses in Rus­sia.

The White House has pre­vi­ously con­firmed that the am­bas­sad­or­ship was offered to Hunts­man on March 8 and that he ac­cep­ted it the same day. Des­pite the sens­it­iv­ity of the Rus­si­an post, a three-month delay on of­fi­cially an­noun­cing the nom­in­a­tion is sur­pris­ing be­cause he has been vet­ted be­fore for am­bas­sad­or­ships to Singa­pore and China.

Con­sidered a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an, Hunts­man is some­what of a sur­prise pick by a White House that prizes loy­alty. He was among those who called on Trump to drop out of the race after the Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood tape was re­leased with the can­did­ate’s com­ments about wo­men. But after the elec­tion, Hunts­man de­scribed Trump’s ac­tion re­ceiv­ing a phone call from the pres­id­ent of Taiwan, which ant­ag­on­ized China, in pos­it­ive terms.

In the past few months, Hunts­man has been pre­par­ing for an ex­traordin­ar­ily dif­fi­cult job: to im­prove re­la­tions and en­gage­ment with Rus­sia after it has meddled in West­ern demo­cra­cies’ elec­tions, an­nexed Crimea, and bolstered Syr­i­an pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad. Hunts­man is learn­ing Rus­si­an and meet­ing with Rus­si­an-af­fairs spe­cial­ists, ac­cord­ing to the think-tank ex­pert.

A former Re­pub­lic­an am­bas­sad­or who knows Hunts­man well says Hunts­man is “do­ing his home­work” and is op­tim­ist­ic that “he could eas­ily be” con­firmed be­fore Con­gress’s Au­gust re­cess.

“Every pres­id­ent deals with it slightly dif­fer­ently, but in the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, ap­par­ently they are hold­ing up on an­noun­cing even a nom­in­a­tion,” said the former am­bas­sad­or. “They have all the pa­pers filled out and sent in and the clear­ances gran­ted, and the agree­ment sent to them by the coun­try con­cerned, in this case Rus­sia. And that all takes time.”

“Things should move very swiftly now since everything is ba­sic­ally done,” the former am­bas­sad­or ad­ded.

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