Read: How the U.S.-Russian relationship went bad
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.”)