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Donald Trump

A sensitive new mission for Jon Huntsman, former US envoy in China: Trump’s ambassador to Russia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 1:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 10:49pm

Former Utah governor, ambassador to China and 2012 presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr has been picked by President Donald Trump to be the US ambassador to Russia, according to a White House official, a high-profile post at a time when relations between the two nations are even more complicated and political than usual.

Trump has offered Huntsman the position, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because the position hasn’t been formally announced. The federal government has launched multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election and potential contacts between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Reuters reported that Huntsman had accepted Trump’s offer also citing a White House source.

Huntsman, 56, has previously served as an ambassador under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He was ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush, before being selected by former President Barack Obama as ambassador to China.

During last year’s presidential campaign, Huntsman showed uncertainty about the eventual winner. After endorsing Trump in April 2016, he called for him to withdraw from the race in October 2016, following the release of an Access Hollywood video that showed Trump making sexually demeaning comments about women.

Huntsman is currently chairman of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.

The choice of Huntsman - who speaks Chinese and whose seven children include adopted Chinese daughter Gracie May, 17 - was reported earlier by Politico.

As was the case when he was sent to Beijing in 2009, Huntsman’s selection has political ramifications. Being dispatched to Moscow will almost certainly take him out of play as a 2018 primary challenger to 82-year-old Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah in a potential race in which early polls show him way ahead of the incumbent.

Besides wanting to show bipartisanship, Obama’s team selected the Republican to serve in Beijing partly as a way to try to take him out of contention for a 2012 presidential bid. It didn’t work. Huntsman resigned the ambassadorship in 2011 and later launched a campaign for the White House, but the moderate candidate failed to gain traction in a Republican primary process that tends to reward conservatives.

In 2011, Huntsman had assets of US$15.9 million to US$71.3 million, according to a financial disclosure form he filed as part of his presidential bid. The bulk of his wealth comes from Huntsman Corp, the chemical company his father founded in 1970.

Its chemicals and adhesives have been used by a variety of companies, including by Boeing for its 787 Dreamliner. Before the company went public in 2005, it was the world’s largest privately owned chemical producer.

The company, based in Salt Lake City and with an operations headquarters near Houston, runs manufacturing operations in Russia. In the past, Huntsman has divested himself of family business holdings when he has accepted ambassadorships to avoid conflicts of interest.

Huntsman has held various positions with the company throughout the years. He was hired as a consultant in August 2015 to help boost the company’s business in Asia, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing shows.

His duties, according to the document, included “development and continued maintenance of governmental and business relationships in developing economic regions, particularly in connection with markets and opportunities in India, China and Southeast Asia.”

The company said it would pay Huntsman US$50,000 a month and as much as US$200,000 in additional compensation “based on achievement of designated results as determined by the Board.” The consulting agreement was to expire on August 31, 2016, although it could be extended for one-year terms.

Huntsman Corp increased its US employment from about 2,000 in 2010 to 3,000 in 2016, while its international workers have gone from about 10,000 to 15,000 during that period.

The job, which requires Senate confirmation, would put Huntsman in Moscow at a time when U.S.-Russian ties have sunk to a post-Cold War low.

Trump has said he wants to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which deteriorated under Obama over issues including Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the two countries’ backing of opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

The tensions peaked in December when Obama expelled 35 Russian suspected spies after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the 2016 election campaign as part of an effort to tilt the vote in Trump’s favour. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.