Trump’s Russia Ambassador Wants to Come Home

Jon Huntsman is expected to return to the U.S. by the end of the year, and is seriously considering a run for governor of Utah.

Pavel Golovkin / Reuters / Thanh Do / The Atlantic

Donald Trump’s man in Moscow may soon be coming home.

Jon Huntsman, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Russia since 2017, is expected to leave his job by the end of the year and is seriously considering a run for governor of Utah, according to four sources familiar with the situation.

Huntsman’s potential interest in the governorship—which he previously held from 2004 to 2009—has been a point of speculation in Utah political circles for months. Earlier this year, both Salt Lake City daily newspapers reported that he might be eyeing the 2020 gubernatorial race. But Huntsman’s allies say the prospect has gotten more serious than many realize.

“It’s not idle chatter,” said Chuck Warren, a Republican consultant who served for a time as Huntsman’s campaign manager during his first bid for governor. “He’s seriously considering it.”

Derek Miller, the head of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce and a well-connected figure in Utah’s donor community, told me Huntsman is said to be “making the rounds and talking to people about his prospects [in the race], doing his due diligence.”

When Huntsman was tapped to serve as ambassador in 2017, he told the Trump administration he would commit to staying in Russia for two years, according to several people close to him, who, like others I talked with for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private plans. He intends to return to his home state after hitting the two-year mark this fall, the sources said. (Huntsman declined to comment for this story.)

The ambassador’s tenure in Moscow has been a tumultuous one. Hundreds of American diplomats have been expelled from the country amid growing tensions over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. And during a now-infamous summit in Helsinki last year, Trump drew global outrage after appearing to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on the question of election tampering.

In the aftermath of the summit, many called on Huntsman to resign his post. Even The Salt Lake Tribune—a newspaper owned by his brother—ran a column making the case. “Ambassador Huntsman, you work for a pawn, not a president,” the columnist Robert Gehrke wrote. “It’s time to come home.” (After the column drew national media attention, the paper published a house editorial arguing that Huntsman “should stay put.”)

Ultimately, Huntsman chose to remain in the embassy and keep his head down, casting his service as an act of patriotic duty rather than loyalty to Trump. In an interview last year with the Deseret News, he said his sons, who serve in the Navy, “don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Well, what party is our president and do I agree or disagree, and then I’ll decide whether to deploy.’ That’s not the way we operate. We salute those who are duly elected and try to do our best to serve. It’s pretty simple.”

But people close to Huntsman say he has come to miss the governor’s mansion—and the autonomy that comes with it. As an ambassador, every consequential move must be made in coordination with the White House and the State Department. A governorship—especially in a state, like Utah, that’s dominated by a single party—is different. “It’s the one job in the United States where you actually get to make decisions,” said a former Huntsman adviser.

This wouldn’t be the first time Huntsman left a diplomatic job to run for office. Back in 2010, I interviewed him while he was serving as ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama. Huntsman was in the States for the holidays, and we spoke in the sparsely furnished Washington, D.C., home he’d recently bought with his wife, prompting speculation about his political future. The notion that he would run for president in 2012 seemed far-fetched at the time. But when I asked him about it, he replied with a calculated coyness: “I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Within a few months, he had resigned and announced his candidacy.

The resulting presidential campaign was short-lived, and Huntsman has made clear to friends that he has no interest in running for the office again. But he’s been heard using the same “one final run” phrase more recently when asked about the gubernatorial race.

Some Utah political observers are skeptical that Huntsman will actually choose to run when the time comes. And even those close to him stress that any number of outside factors could change his thinking in the coming months. Last year, he acknowledged that he’d been diagnosed with skin cancer. (“It’s just Stage 1,” he told the Deseret News. “So we’ll probably get it taken care of, and we’ll be fine.”)

If Huntsman decides to run, he will do so with considerable advantages. He was enormously popular the last time he was in office, with approval ratings that hovered around 80 percent. Many local Republicans credit Huntsman—who cut taxes and loosened the state’s strict alcohol laws—with laying the groundwork for Utah’s now-thriving economy. And as a member of Utah royalty—his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was a revered industrialist and philanthropist—he could easily fund his own campaign.

Miller noted that Huntsman could face tough competition in the Republican primary. While the field is still taking shape, Spencer Cox—the state’s well-liked lieutenant governor—has already announced. (Jason Chaffetz, the former Utah congressman, recently said he won’t run for governor.)

But, Miller said, “Huntsman is going to have higher name ID, a stronger record to run on, and, of course, the money to back him up. He wouldn’t have to raise a dime. That’s hard to beat.”