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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