Jon Huntsman Is Said to Accept Post as Ambassador to Russia


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Jon M. Huntsman Jr. in October 2015.

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Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has accepted President Trump’s offer to be ambassador to Russia, people with knowledge of the matter said on Thursday, taking on a diplomatic assignment that would be challenging in the best of times but is more so now, given the questions swirling around the Trump campaign and its links to Russia.

Mr. Huntsman, a former Republican governor of Utah, served as former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011. Experts said he will need his political dexterity to navigate Moscow at a time when Mr. Trump has called for better ties even as Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election remains under intense scrutiny.

“Not only is there this mess with the investigation that will complicate his assignment, there’s a lot of incoherence within the Trump administration regarding its policy toward Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, who was ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration.

The F.B.I. is known to have examined possible contacts between Russia and Trump advisers. Congress also has opened an inquiry.

While Mr. Trump vowed during the campaign to defrost the relationship with Moscow after the chill of the Obama years, senior officials in his cabinet have so far signaled less change than continuity. The administration, for example, has said it will not lift sanctions until Russia withdraws from Crimea and stops destabilizing Ukraine.

The prospect of further investigations into Russia and the Trump campaign may make it politically impossible for Mr. Trump to pursue a new start. And any new disclosures could make Mr. Huntsman’s life on the diplomatic circuit in Moscow awkward.

Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, was thrust into a media maelstrom in recent weeks after two of Mr. Trump’s most senior advisers, Jeff Sessions and Michael T. Flynn, acknowledged previously undisclosed meetings with him during the campaign and the transition.

Mr. Huntsman, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, had no ties to the Trump campaign.

Although Mr. Huntsman endorsed Mr. Trump for president in April 2016, he later called on the Republican nominee to withdraw from the race after the release of a videotape from the “Access Hollywood” program, in which Mr. Trump made demeaning comments about women.

But in December, Mr. Huntsman defended the president-elect’s decision to take a phone call from the president of Taiwan, which broke decades of diplomatic protocol and aggravated tensions with China.

“As a businessman, Donald Trump is used to looking for leverage in any relationship,” Mr. Huntsman said. “A President Trump is likely to see Taiwan as a useful leverage point.”

Though his family company has holdings in Russia — and he made business trips there many years ago — Mr. Huntsman has no special expertise in the country and spent his career honing an expertise in China. He is a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker; he and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted a girl from China. And he was ambassador to Singapore under former President George Bush.

Still, some said Mr. Huntsman’s experience dealing with autocrats in Beijing would translate to Moscow. “He worked in another authoritarian country with which the United States also has a complex relationship,” said Dimitri K. Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington research organization.

Mr. Simes was in Moscow last week, as word of Mr. Huntsman’s nomination circulated through the foreign policy establishment. Most Russian officials reacted favorably, he said, though some expressed concern about Mr. Huntsman’s ties to the Atlantic Council, a think tank of which he is chairman of the board, because it is perceived in Moscow as anti-Russian.

“Russian officials would be a little worried about that part of Huntsman’s background,” Mr. Simes said. “What they will like about him is that he was a former ambassador to China, he is independently wealthy, and he will have access to the president.”

Mr. McFaul said Mr. Huntsman would have one advantage he did not when posted to Moscow in January 2012 for what proved to be a turbulent two-year stint: President Vladimir V. Putin is not facing as much domestic political opposition, which eases tension with Washington and its emissary to Moscow.

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