Jon Huntsman resigns as U.S. ambassador to Russia to return to Utah for possible run for governor

(Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP file) U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. attends an opening ceremony of the stone of the memorial to members of the resistance at Nazis concentration camps during WWII, at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018.

Washington • U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is returning home to Utah, where he is reportedly weighing another run for governor.

Huntsman sent President Donald Trump a resignation letter Tuesday and plans to move back to the Beehive State in October.

“American citizenship is a privilege and I believe the most basic responsibility in return is service to country,” Huntsman begins his letter to the president. “To that end, I am honored by the trust you have placed in me as the United States ambassador to Russia during this historically difficult period in bilateral relations.”

Huntsman added that he had told Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it was his and his family’s desire to return to America after two years of service "to reconnect with our growing family and responsibilities at home.”

The resignation is effective Oct. 3, Huntsman said.

“It is my hope that this will allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed,” the ambassador said. “I pledge my full effort in facilitating a smooth transition that ensures our foreign policy goals are kept in proper focus.”

The White House confirmed that Trump had received Huntsman’s letter.

“We appreciate his service to the nation, applaud his dedicated work toward improving the U.S.-Russia relationship, and wish him the best in the next chapter,” a White House official told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Huntsman, 59, is a former Utah governor who left the post in 2009 to serve as U.S. ambassador to China in the Obama administration, and is now reportedly considering another run for the state’s highest office, according to those close to him.

Should he run, Huntsman will face a possibly crowded field that includes Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is polling about the same as Huntsman among registered voters but faring better among Republicans.

Cox, who announced his gubernatorial bid earlier this year, said in a statement that he was “excited” to have Huntsman back.

“If he decides to run for governor again, it would make me a better candidate,” Cox said. "I have no doubt that he would run a positive campaign and that voters will benefit as we share our ideas for the future of Utah.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, who as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor became governor when Huntsman left early and who does not plan to run again, said he was grateful for the “good example” Huntsman set in public service.

“His resume is long and lengthy, particularly when it comes to working with the State Department, whether it be in Singapore, China or in Russia,” Herbert said. The governor said he and his wife, Jeanette, “thank Ambassador Huntsman for two years of service in Russia on a very difficult assignment. We look forward to welcoming him home, and are sure his family will be happy to have him home as well.”

Huntsman was a popular governor in Utah, winning every county in his 2008 bid and leaving office with an approval rating topping 80%.

Huntsman’s career has alternated among diplomatic, political and business posts. He was first elected governor in 2004 and again in 2008, though he resigned the position in 2009, when President Barack Obama asked him to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China. He returned to the states about 18 months later.

In 2011, he launched a short-lived presidential bid and then took on a role leading the Atlantic Council, a prominent foreign policy think tank.

Trump tapped Huntsman as ambassador to Russia in his first year as president, a time when U.S.-Russia relations were at one of the lowest points since the Cold War.

The United States, in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, kicked out scores of Russian diplomats and spies and seized two properties in America that Russia had been using. Russia later expelled U.S. diplomats and shut down a consulate in St. Petersburg.

In his two-page letter sent to the White House, Huntsman extolls the work of U.S. diplomats “laboring under extremely difficult circumstances to promote and protect America’s interests.”

And he offered his advice for what should come after he departs:

“Going forward, we must continue to hold Russia accountable when its behavior threatens us and our allies,” Huntsman wrote. “While much of what divides us is irreconcilable, there are common interests we cannot ignore. No reset or restart is going to help, just a clear understanding of our interests and values — and a practical framework for sustained dialogue. Through our diplomacy, we have worked to stabilize years of acrimony and incertitude with the hope of a better relationship. Failure is not an option, and the people on both sides deserve better.”

Huntsman tried to paint the relationship as one that could get better if the two countries work together.

“The bonds between our people remain strong,” Huntsman said in a video released by the embassy last year. “The United States is ready to cooperate and forge a better relationship between our two countries. But that will only be possible when Russia chooses to become a more responsible partner.”

Huntsman’s tenure was also challenging with sanctions in place. While his predecessors had a staff of more than 1,200 people, an embassy in Moscow, three consulates and a country house, Huntsman was left with 455 staffers and the embassy and two consulates.

Huntsman, who had previously served as ambassador to Singapore and hails from a prominent Utah family, was never seen as a Trump supporter, though he took the post in Moscow, he says, out of his passion for duty to country over politics.

Huntsman had at one point called for Trump to step down as the GOP nominee when tapes emerged of him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, but Huntsman later said he would vote for Trump even if they disagree on a “range of issues.”

Trump, whose campaign was buffeted by Russia’s efforts to undermine the election, has long praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Though Huntsman’s role came at a difficult time, foreign policy experts say he held his own under pressure.

William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp. and former ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, just returned from a trip to Moscow and said Huntsman is widely respected there.

“Under his leadership, embassy morale is high despite tense U.S.-Russian relations and a debilitating drawdown of employees resulting from reciprocal U.S. and Russian diplomatic expulsions,” Courtney said.

“The U.S. business community in Moscow admires the ambassador for seeking to maintain and expand commercial ties in nonsanctioned sectors,” Courtney continued. “This is important both because it benefits the U.S. economy, and because commercial ties provide an enduring foundation for U.S.-Russian relations throughout political ups and downs.”

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.