Why did Trump pick Huntsman as Ambassador to Russia? The reasons are many.
On March 9, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp published an article puzzling over Trump’s appointment of Jon Huntsman as U.S. Ambassador to Russia. In it, he pointed out that Huntsman has no issue expertise in Russia or Eastern Europe, has a history of turning on those whom he has previously supported, and holds views on human rights and free trade that run counter to Trump’s. But while Huntsman’s nomination may not make sense in terms of foreign policy, ideology, or personal loyalty, Trump’s desire for revenge, his fraught relationship with the Mormon community, his desire to reward a supporter, and the importance he places on looks offer an explanation for his confusing pick.
First, Trump is infamous for being motivated by revenge. When a conservative radio host asked him in April 2016 what his favorite Bible verse is, Trump inexactly quoted Exodus 21: 24, stating “an eye for an eye.” In fact, Trump’s presidential run may have been motivated primarily by his vindictiveness – in a July 2016 BuzzFeed article, LDS journalist McKay Coppins extensively documented why he believed that Trump sought the Oval Office to get back at his enemies.
By appointing Huntsman, Trump could be trying to “stick it” to one of his most hated foes – Mitt Romney. Although Trump endorsed Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, the former Massachusetts governor was unsparing in his criticism of Trump in 2016. In a March 2016 speech at the University of Utah, he denounced Trump as a “phony” and “fraud” and deemed his promises “as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Later, after Trump’s cringe-inducing Access Hollywood tape was published, Romney characterized the Donald’s statements as “vile degradations.” Although Trump seemed to look past such bad blood when considering Romney for Secretary of State, Trump associate Roger Stone later claimed that the real estate magnate was dangling the post to “torture” Romney.
Huntsman’s nomination may be just another attempt to “punish” Romney for his past criticisms. Observers of the internecine world of Mormon politicos have long noted the bitter rivalry between the Romney and Huntsman clans. By offering Huntsman a post in the State Department, Trump is elevating one of Romney’s fiercest adversaries while leaving Romney emptyhanded.
Beyond a desire for revenge, Huntsman’s appointment could be seen as an attempt to curry favor with the Mormon community. Mormons were very reluctant to support Trump– they handed him a stinging defeat in the Utah primary, and, during the general election, Trump only won Utah by a plurality. Seeing this dearth of support, since the election Trump has attempted to woo members of the Utah faith – he invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform at his inauguration, and a prominent Mormon leader, Todd Christofferson, was chosen to give a prayer at Trump’s inaugural prayer breakfast.
Giving Huntsman a post in Moscow could be seen as another attempt to patch things up with Mormons. The LDS Church has long had problems with the Russian government harassing its missionaries, expelling them from the country, and implementing administrative hurdles to Church functions. But the Kremlin may discourage such practices in the future, or at least adopt a less hostile tone toward the Church, if it fears that relations with Huntsman could sour.
There is also the distinct possibility that Trump is seeking to reward a supporter by “exiling” a potential rival. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch endorsed Trump in May 2016 and, unlike other Mormon politicians, never rescinded his endorsement. With Hatch up for reelection in 2018, there was speculation that Huntsman would seek to oust Hatch in the Republican primary. However, with Huntsman now effectively sidelined, Hatch should have little trouble in securing the nomination for an 8th term.
Finally, Trump may have picked Huntsman because he “looks the part.” As a former reality TV star, Trump has always been big on appearances. In December, the Washington Post ran a story that quoted anonymous Trump sources suggesting that John Bolton’s mustache worked against him being tapped for Secretary of State. By way of contrast, Trump associates credited Rex Tillerson’s “central casting” appearance as helping him secure that post. With his slim build, well-coiffed hair, and Hawaii-worthy tan, Huntsman has looks that were made for TV. Trump may think that his wholesome, all-American appearance could help mitigate the negative perceptions that many Americans attach to Trump’s dealings with Russia.
Trump’s nomination of Huntsman makes little sense when viewed through a conventional policy or loyalty lens. But when Trump’s vengeful nature, troubled relationship with Mormons, ties to Orrin Hatch, and emphasis on “looks” are taken into account, Huntsman’s selection takes on the air of inevitability.