WASHINGTON — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. outlined his plan Tuesday for the U.S. embassy in Moscow should he be confirmed ambassador to Russia, recognizing the job would be a tough one.
And judging from the warm reception the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — both Republicans and Democrats — gave him Tuesday, he's shoo-in for the crucial diplomatic post.
Huntsman is poised to win overwhelming, if not unanimous, approval from the panel and likely the full Senate when his nomination gets there. Committee members praised more than quizzed the two-time U.S. ambassador during a 50-minute hearing, though one senator posed some thorny questions about the different views Huntsman and President Donald Trump have about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
"While I am confident that my previous experience does prepare me for the sensitive diplomatic mission, I am under no illusion that serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation will be easy or simple,” said Huntsman, who headed embassies in China and Singapore.
Huntsman told the panel he is fully cognizant of the "profound responsibilities" he would assume. He said he would engage Russian officials at the highest levels to the lowest tiers to advance American interests. He said he would seek out Russian people, including dissidents, to get their perspectives on culture, religion and human rights.
Huntsman described the relationship with Russia as among the most consequential and complex foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces. Russia continues to threaten stability in Europe and restricts the human rights of its own people, he said.
"There is no question — underline no question — that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year, and Moscow continues to meddle in the Democratic processes of our friends and allies," Huntsman said.
That directly led to the low level of trust between the two countries, he said.
Huntsman's wife, Mary Kaye, and six of their seven children were seated behind him in the hearing room. He said he couldn't accept the job without the complete endorsement of his family.
Huntsman, 57, didn't face many tough questions, though Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., delved into what he called the elephant on the table: Trump's "actively, actively" attempting to cloud whether it was the Russians who interfered in the election.
"I just don't want to normalize what is happening today where our diplomats are toeing one line and the president is toeing a completely different line on his Twitter feed," he said.
Murphy asked Huntsman how he would represent his personal belief to Russia about the election while his boss says something different.
Huntsman said the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI and other intelligence agencies agree that Russia meddled.
"I think that expresses where the facts are with respect to Russia's involvement in our election," he said.
Murphy told Huntsman those differences make his role as ambassador "uniquely hard in an unprecedented way."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, didn't attend the hearing, but said in an interview that everyone knows that Russia interfered in the election and it has admitted as much.
"And I think the president knows that as well," Hatch said.
Two senators — one Republican, the other Democrat — heaped praise on Huntsman in introducing him to the panel before the hearing.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted that Huntsman would be ambassador to the nation with the largest geographic footprint, as well as already having served in the most populous country, China.
"I think that is significant," Lee told the committee.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Russia presents a challenge for the U.S. right now, and it will take a person with "skills unlike anything we've ever seen before." He said there's only one person who could go to Russia to open a dialog and find a pathway forward.
"Jon is a tremendous patriot and tremendous American," Manchin said, urging his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to unanimously approve Huntsman.
During the hearing, committee members came and went, leaving only a single senator on the panel at one point.
The committee didn't make a decision Tuesday, but a vote could come as early as next week. Then it could be weeks if not months before the full Senate confirms Huntsman. A unanimous committee vote, however, could speed things up.
Hatch said he expects Huntsman would be confirmed "100 percent" and would have an immediate impact in his new post.
"The Russians are always difficult to work with. They have their own way of doing things. If they want to cooperate, they will. If they don't, they wont. It's just that simple. I think Jon Huntsman is fully aware of that and he'll be able to handle it," he said.
The hearing came at the same time Trump was making his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Huntsman would head to Moscow during a time when the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is as strained as it has been since perhaps the end of the Cold War. President Vladimir Putin recently expelled 755 U.S. diplomats from Russia in retaliation for Congress expanding sanctions on the country.
"There's no question there are aspects of this relationship that are being tried right now," Lee said in an interview.
The senator said Russian interference in the U.S. elections isn't new, but the use of new technology made it more expansive. Even though there's no evidence that it affected the outcome of the election, it makes people understandably nervous.
"It's one of the many things ambassador Huntsman will have on his plate when he works there, is healing this relationship," Lee said.
And Huntsman, he said, is exactly the type of person to do that, describing him as smart, engaging and able to read people well. "He knows his audience and can learn his audience much more quickly than anyone I've ever worked with," Lee said.7 comments on this story
As ambassador, Huntsman's first order of business would be to establish relationships with Russian government officials and make sure they understand the U.S. position on issues ranging from trade to military affairs, Lee said.
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 until July.
He served as U.S. ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama and U.S. ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush. The Senate confirmed him for those posts without a single objection.