SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he will nominate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as U.S. ambassador to Russia, ending months of speculation about the high-profile, high-stakes appointment.
Should the U.S. Senate confirm him, Huntsman would head to Moscow as Congress and a special counsel investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and whether Trump's campaign had ties to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any interference, and Trump has said there was no collusion with Moscow.
Huntsman didn't respond to a text for comment Tuesday. But his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, posted a black-and-white photo on Instagram showing the two of them on a flight to Moscow in 1992.
"Not sure I ever would have imagined an official nomination as US ambassador to Russia would be in the future. Couldn't be more thrilled for this outstanding diplomat who no doubt will make America extremely proud! Hopefully the US Senate will concur!" she wrote under the picture.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Trump made a "wise" choice in Huntsman.
"He possesses the savvy, grace and tact characteristic of our nation’s top diplomats, and I am confident he will continue serving our country well as the next ambassador to Russia," Hatch said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted, "Happy that Jon Huntsman's nomination as US ambassador to Russia is (finally) moving forward. He's a great choice. America needs him!"
Huntsman's name for the key diplomatic post first surfaced in March, and the White House acknowledged he was Trump's pick, though the president didn't formally nominate him at that time. The soonest the Senate could confirm him is likely September.
"It's the nomination that we have been waiting for and he is the perfect choice for this position, and if there was ever a time we needed Jon Huntsman, this is it," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Huntsman has the right experience and qualifications for the job and understands "big power" politics, diplomacy and trade, he said.
"I think he comes into this position at a very precarious time, but also at a time where there is great opportunity to improve this important relationship," Perry said, adding Huntsman understands the long game and how to position the country. "I think it's going to be a difficult process for a while. I have no doubt he is up to the task."
Perry said Huntsman will have no trouble in the Senate confirmation process, noting he has gone through it three times before without a single dissenting vote.
Huntsman, a Republican who stepped down as Utah's governor in 2009 to serve as U.S. ambassador to China under former Democratic President Barack Obama, has repeatedly declined to comment on his role with the Trump administration.
Huntsman has served in the administrations of five presidents, including as U.S. ambassador to Singapore in the George H. W. Bush administration and was a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
U. political science professor Marjorie Castle, an expert on Russian and European politics, told the Deseret News earlier this month that the delay in nomination could be intentional, "waiting for the appropriate moment or the politically most useful moment." Or, she said, it could be the result of the administration's disorganization.
Of the 564 key positions Trump has to fill, there were formal nominations for 130 and confirmations for 46, according to a tabulation by the Washington Post in early July.
BYU political science professor Scott Cooper, also an expert on Russian politics, said earlier this month the time it's taking for Huntsman's appointment is "only strange unless you look at the overall pattern" of the Trump administration.
"There might be some rationale on the Trump administration side. It might just be that they have been slow on everything," Cooper said, calling Huntsman "maybe the safest choice" made by the president.
It may be that the Trump administration wants "someone with totally clean hands when it comes to Russia, given all the problems they're having," he said, while the Russians appear to want to "remove a lightning rod from Washington."