Washington • Senators on Tuesday roundly praised the nomination of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to serve as America’s ambassador to Russia as Huntsman broke with President Donald Trump and declared there was “no question” Russia interfered in the U.S. election last year and that as the envoy to the country he would forcefully push back on such actions.
Huntsman, who was ambassador to Singapore and China previously, acknowledged he will assume a challenging role if confirmed but would meet with dissidents, seek to end human-rights abuses and help bring solutions to conflicts in Syria and Ukraine while fostering a “necessary” relationship with the federation.
“While I am confident my previous experiences prepare me for this sensitive diplomatic mission, I am under no illusion that serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation will be easy or simple,” Huntsman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Our relationship with Russia is among the most consequential and complex foreign-policy challenges we face.”
Unprompted, Huntsman said in his opening remarks that “there is no question that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year and Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies.”
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia attempted to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump, though the president has disputed that finding. A special counsel and several congressional committees are investigating Russia’s actions and whether Trump’s team colluded with the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Huntsman, whom Trump picked to be America’s top envoy to Russia, didn’t mention those probes and only used Trump’s name when thanking him for the nomination.
Under questioning, Huntsman said he believed the intelligence agencies’ conclusions and referenced his time as Utah governor in ensuring elections ran smoothly and without interference.
As governor, “you have nothing more important than the integrity of your election process,” Huntsman said. “To work to undercut, to subvert or sow seeds of doubt of distrust of that system is the highest level of injury that can be laid on any election system.”
“I will speak about it” as ambassador, Huntsman added.
The Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Huntsman’s nomination later this month or in early October and the full Senate could confirm him this fall.
The Senate has confirmed Huntsman three times previously without a single objection and it was clear Huntsman enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle Tuesday.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Huntsman was among “the very highest quality nominees for an ambassadorial post I have seen in the seven years on the Foreign Relations Committee.”
Added Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who was his party’s vice presidential nominee last year: “You are superbly qualified for this position. I look forward to supporting your nomination.”
Other Trump nominees have faced a strong rebuke from Democrats this year. On Tuesday, the committee’s Democrats voted almost party line against candidates to be the U.S. ambassadors to the Bahamas and Singapore.
With Huntsman, though, senators appeared eager for the former Utah governor and diplomat to land in Moscow and fight for America’s interests.
“Our goal is to change Russia’s behavior,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “It is not to have a chummy relationship with Russia without a change in behavior.”
“Russia is a challenge to us but it is one we have to work with and find a pathway forward,” sad Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noting Huntsman was the perfect person for the job. Manchin urged all senators to confirm Huntsman unanimously.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who served as Huntsman’s general counsel when he was governor, said he “cannot imagine” anyone more ready for the role.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he “strongly” supported Huntsman’s nomination, adding, “I’m glad your family is willing to do this.”
Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, and most of his immediate family sat behind the nominee through the course of the hearing, which was adjourned at one point and re-opened as senators wanted more time to quiz Huntsman.
The nominee promised senators he would work with them to address the multiple challenges facing the U.S.-Russia relationship, especially in trying to end North Korea’s nuclear missile efforts and Russia’s seizing of Crimea in Ukraine.
“Aggression doesn’t pay and there will be a response,” Huntsman said.
He noted that with Russia as a “nuclear superpower” with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and global influence, the United States needed to burnish its ability to get along with the country while also promoting American values.
“As with any challenging relationship, and in the case of Russia it‘s a challenging but necessary relationship, we have to be at the same table together,” Huntsman said.
Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.