Huntsman in exile: Did appointment make way for Hatch?

Who is Jon Huntsman?
Who is Jon Huntsman?

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    Who is Jon Huntsman?

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Who is Jon Huntsman? 00:45

Story highlights

  • The appointment comes a day before veteran Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch announced his plans to run again
  • Unlike others, Huntsman's harsh words during the home stretch of the campaign didn't doom him

Washington (CNN)For a second time, a president is sending Jon Huntsman overseas on an assignment that could block his political ambitions.

President Donald Trump's decision to tap the Republican former Utah governor as the US ambassador to Russia puts Huntsman on the sidelines the day before veteran Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch announced his plans Thursday to run for another term in 2018. The two moves came amid speculation that Huntsman would challenge Hatch in the Republican primary.
Unlike several other former Trump critics who have lost out on political appointments, Huntsman's harsh words during the home stretch of the campaign didn't doom him. Several senior administration officials told CNN Wednesday that Huntsman had accepted the diplomatic posting.
On Tuesday, Huntsman had dodged a question from a Washington Post reporter -- asked in front of Hatch -- about whether he would challenge Hatch in Utah.
But Hatch told CNN that he spent an hour with Huntsman on Wednesday and believed his "long-time friend" posed no threat. "I don't think he would have ever run against me," Hatch said. "He didn't really want to run for Senate."
Huntsman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Huntsman got the nod despite his criticism of Trump during the presidential race -- particularly his assertion that Trump should step aside and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence should head the ticket after the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape surfaced.
Many other Trump critics -- including long-time Huntsman rival Mitt Romney, another Mormon with Utah ties who was in the running for secretary of state -- have not landed posts in Trump's administration.
It's the second time in the last eight years that a president has named Huntsman an ambassador amid speculation about the 56-year-old's political aspirations.
In 2008, Obama's move came as Democrats feared Huntsman would be a viable 2012 presidential challenger.
It didn't prevent Huntsman from running. He resigned as the ambassador to China in time to return to the United States and launch a bid for the GOP nomination.
But his tenure in Obama's administration -- including his praise for Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- did doom Huntsman in the Republican primary. His candidacy never got off the ground and he dropped out of the race after finishing third in the New Hampshire primary.
One of the fellow Republicans who held his feet to the fire was Trump. The billionaire businessman repeatedly jabbed Huntsman during that 2012 campaign, mocking his tenure as ambassador to China.
"Jon Huntsman called to see me. I said no, he gave away our country to China!" Trump tweeted in February 2012, three weeks after Huntsman had dropped out of the GOP presidential race.
In September 2011, Trump bragged on Twitter that he hadn't returned Huntsman's call.
In December, he called Huntsman a "lightweight."
Later that month, he called Huntsman a "weak" diplomat.
Huntsman, unlike some other perceived GOP moderates, had held his tongue on Trump through most of the campaign -- but unloaded after the "Access Hollywood" tape, in which Trump made lewd and sexually aggressive remarks about women, became public.
"In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom -- at such a critical moment for our nation -- and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Governor Pence to lead the ticket," Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Trump has already rejected candidates for diplomatic posts over their criticism of him.
Elliot Abrams, whom Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose over Huntsman as his No. 2, was nixed by Trump after finding out about a negative article the former George W. Bush adviser had written of the GOP nominee.
The President and Abrams held a meeting in February that by all accounts went well. But when Trump later learned of the article, he could not get past Abrams' harsh critique, three Republican sources told CNN at the time.
That treatment has led many Washington observers to see Huntsman's appointment as aimed at neutralizing his political threat -- one that Abrams didn't represent.
Administration officials, for their part, have been quick to praise Huntsman's diplomatic chops.
Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and whose family lived and worked in Taiwan for a period in the 1980s, worked in a series of Asia-focused commerce and trade posts under President George H.W. Bush before being named ambassador to Singapore at age 32. He was a deputy US trade representative under President George W. Bush before being elected governor of Utah.
One senior administration official said Huntsman was tapped for the Russian ambassadorship because he is a "brilliant guy," "tough" and understands what the President wants.
Huntsman is a "remarkably good choice" at a time when American attitudes toward the Kremlin are becoming increasingly polarized, according to former US ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering.
"Jon Huntsman is an individual who can bring a great sense of reality -- he understands international politics as well as anybody I know and I think he's a remarkably good choice for this job," Pickering added.
The Russian government reacted to the choice with more circumspection.
Asked Thursday about the likely appointment of Huntsman, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "We would welcome any head of the US Embassy in Moscow who will be strongly committed to idea of a dialogue with Moscow."