Jon Huntsman a good choice for ambassador to Russia

US NEWS HUNTSMAN-RUSSIA-ENVOY OS
Jon Huntsman addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in 2011.

Six months into the Trump administration, the president finds himself with the lowest approval rating at this milestone of any American president in the modern era.  According to Gallup, only 38.8 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing. His watch has been characterized by volatility. His biggest achievement was made possible not by negotiation skills honed in the era of the Art of the Deal, but by the untimely passing of Justice Antonin Scalia a year before he came into office. There has been no legislative achievement of note. No tax reform. No infrastructure progress. Not a single shovel in the ground for a border wall. And no repeal and replacement of Obamacare despite Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House.

Meanwhile, the Russia probe seems to be metastasizing and has led to a falling-out between the president and his first Senate supporter, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That was made clear in a rambling interview the president gave to the New York Times in which he said he was mistaken in appointing Sessions, which was followed by a tweet wherein Trump called Sessions “beleaguered.”

The reason Sessions is beleaguered in Trump’s mind is that he surrendered the ability to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller. No wonder the White House is exploring the president’s pardon power, especially with the Washington Post reporting that, despite Sessions’ claims to the contrary, intercepts of the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, revealed that the envoy told his superiors that he’d spoken to Sessions about campaign issues during the 2016 presidential race. Still to come is the inevitable congressional testimony by Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort — Jared Kushner testified last week — regarding their June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower with five Russians.

Too bad for Trump that all this bad news knocked out of the headlines something positive he did when faced with an important nomination.

Given current events and the fragile relationship between the United States and Russia, the U.S. ambassadorship to the Kremlin is arguably the most important posting in our diplomatic corps. It would have been objectionable — and generated appropriately alarming headlines — if the president had nominated a flunky, someone lacking in credentials, to this important post. But he didn’t.

Instead he selected Jon Huntsman, a distinguished two-term governor of Utah who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China and President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Singapore. In nominating Huntsman, Trump has selected a credible, qualified public servant who is no yes man.

It was Huntsman who once referred to the GOP primary process as a race to the bottom and even called for Trump’s withdrawal from the race after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced. During the campaign, Trump dismissed Huntsman as a lightweight and weak. It’s nice to see both now put personal difference aside and country first. That’s not a first for Huntsman, who has distinguished himself as a leader of the No Labels effort, which seeks to implement nonpartisan solutions to complex problems. And it is in keeping with the way he has comported himself as a public servant — he is a conservative, but not an ideologue. Finally, in a world of incivility, there are no stories of intemperate words having left his lips. His disposition is the opposite of the man who just nominated him.

According to Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus in Russian studies at Princeton and New York Universities, the pick was well-regarded in Moscow. Cohen has spent decades studying Russia and was an advocate for detente with the Soviet Union. He was in Russia last week when we exchanged emails about the Huntsman pick.

“Initially, the Kremlin was pleased by the appointment because, in its eyes, Huntsman is not a routine diplomat but a significant American political figure — former presidential candidate, governor, etc.,” Cohen wrote. “For the Kremlin, this was a sign of seriousness and respect on the part of Trump. As for Huntsman himself, clearly he is smart, able, and was a distinguished ambassador to China for Obama. In this respect, he has been appropriately ‘bipartisan.’ ”

Cohen observes that Huntsman, who has three times cleared Senate confirmation without a single vote in opposition, might nevertheless become victim to our domestic debate over Russian hacking, a controversy the professor believes is overblown.

“Problem now might be, however, Congress has gone completely mad over the alleged ‘Russiagate,’ and the new sanctions vs. Russia are so unwise in so many ways as to be considered dangerous and reckless,” Cohen wrote. “If passed as written, they will do great harm and, like all sanctions, be very hard to remove or diminish. In this context, I heard indirectly before I left the U.S. that the Senate committee might either refuse to give Huntsman or anyone appointed by Trump a hearing, or give Huntsman a bit of a hard time.”

How different the president’s standing might be today if he’d exercised the same type of judgment daily over the last half-year that he showed by picking Huntsman. It was a good pick, Mr. President. Now give him the latitude to do the job. The last thing the nation can afford is for Ambassador Huntsman to become beleaguered.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts Smerconish at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN. @smerconish