Washington • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had no role in Donald Trump’s presidential bid but the main focus of Huntsman’s hearing Tuesday to be ambassador to Russia will likely be the country’s meddling in the 2016 election and how he will manage a soured relationship between the nations.
The Senate has approved Huntsman three times previously for other diplomatic roles — including, most recently ambassador to China — and no member has objected to his nomination as America’s top envoy to Russia. Senators, though, are likely to quiz Huntsman about Russia’s interference in the presidential election, the ongoing investigations into those actions and how he will deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Huntsman may also have to answer how he will deal with Trump, who has praised Putin as a leader and denied Russia was trying to help Trump win the presidency.
“Huntsman will obviously be asked to indicate his views on the many contentious issues of Russian-American relations, and election meddling has to be on that list,” says Stephen Sestanovich, who served as the State Department’s ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union under President Bill Clinton and now sits on the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sestanovich also sees the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a chance for Huntsman to establish his own path forward with U.S.-Russian relations and perhaps distance himself from Trump’s repeated defense of Russia.
“It’s an opportunity for him to set out a crisper, clearer stance than the president himself has been willing to do,” Sestanovich says. “Huntsman will build credibility with the senators — and with the Russians, for that matter — if he says very forthrightly that meddling in our elections is unacceptable, will not be allowed, and will not benefit anyone who tries it. It would be a big mistake for him to be too weaselly on the subject.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have said that Russia purposefully tried to undermine the 2016 election with the goal of electing Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees are probing whether Trump’s team colluded with Russia.
Trump has denied any such cooperation in the campaign.
A Democratic aide on the Foreign Relations Committee said Russia’s efforts to affect the 2016 election will be a main topic Tuesday.
“I think it’s safe to say that the Russian interference will be a large topic at the hearing since it extends to U.S.-Russian relations at this very moment,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to comment publicly.
Neither of Utah’s two senators, Orrin Hatch or Mike Lee, sits on the committee, though Lee will be introducing Huntsman. Lee served as general counsel to Huntsman when he was governor.
Huntsman has not spoken publicly about his pending nomination, in accord with Senate custom. The White House announced he would be nominated in March but didn’t formally send his name to Capitol Hill until July, right before the Senate adjourned for its August recess.
The Foreign Relations Committee is likely to vote later this month or in early October to send Huntsman’s nomination to the full Senate.
Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.