SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is "in discussions" to become U.S. ambassador to Russia, CNN reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed senior official in the Trump administration.
Just a day earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that Huntsman was being considered for the No. 2 spot at the U.S. State Department, deputy to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
He was also on President Donald Trump's list of secretary of state candidates, along with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others.
Huntsman, a Republican, stepped down in 2009 after being elected to a second term as governor of Utah to become U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama.
A presidential candidate in 2012, he has also served two GOP presidents as U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and as a trade ambassador to Asia under President George W. Bush.
CNN reported Huntsman talked with Tillerson last week about the post and that another source identified as close to Huntsman said he has been in touch with Trump's top advisers and possibly the president.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said choosing Huntsman for such a key role would demonstrate the Trump administration's "seriousness" about dealing with Russia
"Russia puts (Huntsman) right in the thick of things, in both exciting ways and in really challenging ways, given the accusations that have been leveled against Russia and Russia's meddling in our presidential election," Karpowitz said.
Trump and his associates have been criticized for seeming too friendly toward Russian leader Vlamir Putin. The new president's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned recently over concerns about his Russian contacts.
Congress is feeling the pressure, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Huntsman's former chief of staff as governor.
"I don’t think the pick makes questions go away about what happened in the election," Karpowitz said, referring to allegations that Russia hacked Democratic emails to help Trump win the presidential election.
"But it does suggest they’re serious about having experienced people who know what they’re doing in a position to deal with Russia on a regular basis. And that can only be a good thing, it seems to me, in terms of our national interest," he said.
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, ran the Governors Office of Economic Development under Huntsman. Perry said Huntsman could help Trump deal with the concerns about Russia.
"He's already handled that very complex relationship with China," Perry said. He said the United States' relationship with Russia is also "not one you leave to amateurs. It's got to be the real deal."
Huntsman had supported Trump, but then urged him to get out of the race after a tape surfaced shortly before last November's election of Trump using graphic terms to describe making sexual advances on women.
Utah Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, a Trump supporter, said Huntsman would have a lot to offer the new president's administration.
He said Huntsman would bring strength and "help tie — I don't want to say normalcy, but I believe a better word might be just experience — into the Trump administration," which "obviously hasn't had a lot of experience on political matters."
Huntsman, who as governor supported civil unions for gays and lesbians years before same-sex marriage was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, would offer Trump a unique perspective, Okerlund said.
With Huntsman, he said, "you could never could quite tell on some issues if he was a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, because he would look at issues from a standpoint of what makes sense."
Okerlund said he wasn't surprised to see Huntsman considered for the Russian ambassadorship.
"I know that he has been considered for a while, and I know that when he was being considered before, Trump was very interested and impressed with the experience and qualifications of Gov. Huntsman," the majority leader said.
Karpowitz said the biggest beneficiary of Huntsman being selected for the spot might be Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has not yet announced if he will seek re-election in 2018, even though Huntsman has expressed interest in running for his seat.
"It would remove a potentially competitive opponent for the Republican nomination for Senate," Karpowitz said. "If Huntsman were to take a position with the administration of any sort, that would be good news for the Hatch camp."