Ambassador Jon Huntsman says conclusion of Mueller probe could lead to ‘positive steps’ in U.S.-Russian relations

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, seen here in 2008 while he was Utah's governor, says the end of the special counsel investigation may open new opportunities for diplomacy between the two superpowers.

Washington • The conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election has created a “slightly improved environment” that will help further U.S.-Russia relations, America’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, said in an interview.

“The estrangement which we’ve experienced in the bilateral relationship has gone on too long,” Huntsman told Public Radio International’s The World. “And the estrangement can lead to bad conclusions — always assuming the worst in the other, which is long term, I think, potentially extremely dangerous. So opening up new channels that, maybe, this kind of slightly improved environment will allow us to do I think would actually be a good thing.”

Huntsman, a former Utah governor and U.S. presidential candidate, has been mostly silent on Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has produced indictments against 26 Russian nationals and three Russian companies as well as six former advisers to President Donald Trump.

Mueller's long-anticipated report found that Russia launched an extensive effort to undermine U.S. elections, prop up Trump's campaign and hinder Democrat Hillary Clinton's bid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied participating in such a scheme and Huntsman, a seasoned diplomat, has been thrust into the middle of the spat between two world superpowers.

Huntsman said in the interview in Moscow that it was important that the investigation is done and that it was professionally conducted. But he cautioned that it wasn't a cure-all.

“I think many on the Russian side conclude that maybe this is the magic elixir and all of our issues are all of a sudden solved, and we have to remind them that, 'No, this does not solve any of our issues,'” Huntsman said. “We still have a lot of the underlying challenges and problems that brought us to where we are today, that brought about the unprecedented level of sanctions and the deterioration in our diplomatic presence that we see both in the U.S. mission here, and also on the U.S. side for Russia.”

The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian intelligence and diplomats and shuttered its consulate in Seattle in response to the election meddling. In a tit-for-tat, Moscow then ordered 60 American diplomats out of Russia and closed its St. Petersburg consulate.

Even so, Trump has remained effusive about Putin and praised his leadership style even in the face of international criticism over the attempted assassination of a British spy and other human rights abuses.

Huntsman said in the interview that Mueller finishing his work could allow Congress to step up and address the U.S.-Russian relationship now that some of the cloud of the investigation is gone.

“So it may create a little more space and it may mean that members in Congress will be more willing to engage where they've been uniformly angry and concerned, rightly, about the events of 2016,” Huntsman said. “But we haven't seen manifestation of that yet.”

Huntsman says the report's conclusion may allow America to take some “positive steps.”

It's unclear if that can happen.

Congressional committees and several U.S. attorneys are still investigating Russia's attack on the U.S. election and the Trump team's contacts with people aligned with Russian leaders.

And the FBI has already said that it has boosted efforts to combat interference in the 2020 election and Russia is at the center of the concern.

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that Russia’s meddling was a “significant counterintelligence threat.”

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is owned and published by Paul Huntsman, the brother of Ambassador Jon Huntsman.