By Oren Dorell

President Trump is nominating former Utah governor Jon Huntsman to be U.S. ambassador to Russia, at a time of ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Huntsman, 57, a Republican, served two other stints as an ambassador — in Singapore, under President George H.W. Bush, and in China under President Barack Obama.

Here’s what you should know about him:

Popular governor of Utah

Huntsman was one of Utah’s most popular governors, serving nearly five years from 2005 to 2009, with an approval rating of nearly 90% at one point of his tenure.

Under his leadership, Utah was rated the best-managed state in the country by the Pew Center in 2008. He cut taxes by more than $400 million, expanded the state’s economy and pursued increased teacher compensation, as well as better student access to literacy, math and science programs. The state’s employment level improved during the 2008 recession, according to the Utah State Capitol website.  

Ambassador to Singapore, China

Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore from 1992-1993. He was ambassador to China 2009 to 2011. In China, Huntsman’s name was blocked from search engines for a while, according to the Associated Press.

In 2011, while Chinese democracy activists were trying to recreate their version of the Arab Spring protests, a video circulated on the Internet showing Huntsman at the site of a small protest in Beijing. Huntsman left after an unidentified Chinese man asked Huntsman why he was there and whether he wanted to see chaos in China, the AP reported.

The U.S. Embassy said the ambassador was passing through the area with family and did not intend to attend a protest.

Later that year, Huntsman resigned as ambassador to campaign unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2012, Huntsman was appointed to the boards of directors of Ford and Caterpillar.

Clashes with Trump

Huntsman eventually supported Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign despite “fundamental philosophical differences,” but pulled his endorsement in October after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in which Trump boasted about fondling women. Huntsman described the campaign as “nothing but a race to the bottom.”

 

Trump had criticized Huntsman when he was ambassador to Beijing. In a series of tweets in 2011 and 2012, Trump called Huntsman a “lightweight” and “weak” and claimed that China “did a major number on us” during his tenure, the AP reported.

But Huntsman and Trump buried their differences after Trump’s election, and Huntsman was briefly under consideration to be Trump’s secretary of state.

A strategic thinker on confronting Russia

In 2014, in his first extended public comments as chairman of the Atlantic Council think tank, Huntsman called Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine “a wake-up call” for the West about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations to rebuild the former Soviet empire.

The conflict began in 2014, when Putin responded to an anti-Russian rebellion in Ukraine by seizing and annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and supporting anti-government forces who seized territory in eastern Ukraine.

Huntsman said that since 50% of Russia’s trade involves selling oil and natural gas to Europe, the U.S. should punish Moscow “where it hurts the most” by working with allies to replace some of that Russian energy with U.S. exports.

“Better to say we have the raw materials and resources that would be able to win over market share that would be an attention-getter,” Huntsman said. “We have some real cards to play.”

Contrast with Trump over trade

In 2014, Huntsman described two large multi-nation trade deals the Obama administration was trying to clinch as “two of the greatest things we’ve got going in the world.”

Trump canceled the two deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with South American and Asian countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which aimed to increase trade with the European Union. Trump said both were bad deals for American businesses and workers. 

U.S.-Russia conflicts are now his

Huntsman will have to balance his own assertive stance toward Russia with Trump’s push to improve relations between the two countries, which disagree on numerous issues:

• Syria. The United States and Russia support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Anti-government forces backed by the U.S. have been locked in conflict for six years with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who’s been propped up by Russia and Iran. 

• Ukraine. The U.S. recently added sanctions on Russia for its involvement in Ukraine, but it also expects Russia to help implement the 2015 cease-fire agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus.

• Election meddling. Russia has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. for its seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Obama ordered them seized in December, saying they were used for espionage and Russia’s alleged campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. At the time, Putin said he would not retaliate as a nod to President-elect Trump.

• Human rights. U.S. ambassadors to Russia traditionally use their posts to in Moscow to promote democracy and human rights. Russia has cracked down on opponents in in advance of Putin’s expected run for re-election next year. Targets include opposition politicians, activists, anti-corruption investigators and journalists. Some have been murdered, and others have died under suspicious circumstances.

Trump has not spoken out about Russia’s human rights record, but he has called Putin a strong leader.

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