Washington • Jon Huntsman says he’s staying put as U.S. ambassador to Russia to help manage the world’s “most dangerous relationship” — despite calls for him to resign in the wake of President Donald Trump’s widely panned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune, addressed to columnist Robert Gehrke, who had urged Huntsman to step down, the ambassador says he must continue his vital mission to represent the interests of the United States and that “popular punditry is ill-suited” to describe the work of diplomats in Washington’s sensitive relationship with Moscow.
“I have taken an unscientific survey among my colleagues, whom you reference, about whether I should resign,” Huntsman wrote. “The laughter told me everything I needed to know.”
The former Utah governor, whom Trump picked as America’s top envoy to Russia, does not reference the U.S. president’s remarks made alongside Putin in which he discounted U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election or the two-hour private meeting Trump had with Putin. (Trump later walked back his assertion that he didn’t think Russia was behind the interference.)
Huntsman — who has not spoken publicly about the summit in Helsinki between the two world leaders — wrote in the letter that politics does not play a role in diplomacy.
“Representatives of our foreign service, civil service, military and intelligence services have neither the time nor inclination to obsess over politics, though the issues of the day are felt by all,” Huntsman wrote. “Their focus is on the work that needs to be done to stabilize the most dangerous relationship in the world, one that encompasses nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, stopping bloodshed in Ukraine, and seeking a settlement of the seemingly intractable Syrian crisis.”
Nowhere in his letter does Huntsman mention Russia’s widely reported cyberattack on U.S. elections. He does point to the increased difficulties posed by staff shortages in the wake of the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions that have frayed Washington’s ties with Moscow.
Gehrke, in a column published Tuesday, argued that Huntsman should leave his Senate-confirmed post because remaining silent and serving under Trump “would be complicity in the undoing of our nation and its status as a world leader.”
The columnist also made reference to Huntsman's two sons, who are both serving in the U.S. Navy, saying the ambassador would honor their service by leaving.
“As for my sons, active-duty naval officers whom you also call out, I honor their courageous service each time I salute the Marine guards protecting our large embassy compound,” Huntsman responded. “Their words when asked if I should resign are unprintable.”
It was unclear if Huntsman was referring to comments by the Marines or his sons.
CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza posted on Twitter: “How can Jon Huntsman not resign immediately after that Trump-Putin presser?”
But Huntsman, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore and to China for Republican and Democratic presidents, wants to remain in Moscow at a time when relations between the two nuclear powers are at a critical low.
“This response is entirely consistent with his career in public service,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics who worked for Huntsman when he was Utah governor.
“He's proven time and time again, it's more than politics for him. It's about the United States of America,” Perry added. “The reason why he said he would stay is because he understands how precarious this relationship is. It goes to his patriotism more than anything else that he sees that he has to stay the course. With his experience, he must be the person staying on the wall.”
An official said the State Department had "nothing to add to Ambassador Huntsman’s comments.”
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Ambassador Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.