Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and onetime presidential candidate, is being floated as a possible secretary of state – and he could be the answer to President-elect Donald Trump’s very public search to fill what will be a critical role in his administration.
So far, Huntsman’s name has not been mentioned by the Trump transition team, but multiple reports say he could be in the mix, along with other aspirants for the job such as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired Army General David Petraeus, Senator Bob Corker and ex-UN ambassador John Bolton. Multiple news organizations are reporting that the hunt for a secretary of state is widening, and former Exxon Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson could also be a candidate.
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Huntsman checks a lot of boxes for Trump, who has business interests around the world but no direct foreign policy experience.
- He has served in five administrations, starting as an assistant in the Reagan White House and ending with the ambassadorship to China in Barack Obama’s first term. So unlike, say, Romney or Giuliani, he knows the ropes in Washington and, as his work for a Democratic president suggests, can transcend partisan politics.
- He has executive experience as the popular governor of Utah, which during his tenure was ranked number one among best-run states by the The Pew Charitable Trusts. During his two terms, he also cut taxes and created jobs.
- He has deep experience in China and elsewhere in Asia and speaks Mandarin (though a 2011 story in Slate questioned his fluency), which could come in handy as Trump confronts Beijing. In fact, Huntsman took a cool approach to the supposed diplomatic faux pas Trump made when he took a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan, telling Fox News that there is “a little too much hyperventilating about this one” and suggesting to The Salt Lake Tribune that Trump could use Taipei for leverage with Beijing.
- He is well versed in international trade, having served as deputy assistant commerce secretary and deputy trade representative.
- He has business experience as an executive at Huntsman Corp., the hugely successful chemicals company founded by his billionaire father, John Huntsman Sr.
- Both Huntsman and Trump are graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.
- Both are wealthy men with large and glamorous families.
- Trump has said that Romney looks like a secretary of state. So does the equally telegenic Huntsman.
The Trump transition team’s quest for a secretary of state has been fraught, with campaign manager and adviser Kellyanne Conway forcefully undermining Romney, a leader of the anti-Trump forces within the Republican Party establishment who was especially personal in his criticism.
On Meet the Press on Nov. 27, Conway said: “People feel betrayed to think that Governor Romney, who went out of his way to question the character and the intellect and the integrity of Donald Trump, now our president-elect, would be given the most significant cabinet post of all, secretary of state.”
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For Conway and others within the Trump camp, picking Huntsman would be one more way to punish Romney, who already made an awkward trip to Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 19 to audition for the reality TV star he had been savaging for a year.
Romney and Huntsman, distant cousins who trace their lineage back to the Mormon founders of Utah, have been the state’s golden-boy rivals for decades. The rivalry became a rift in the GOP primary of 2008, when Huntsman endorsed Sen. John McCain instead of Romney. In the GOP primary of 2012, both Huntsman and Romney sought the presidential nomination, but Huntsman dropped out after coming in third in New Hampshire. There is even a book about the falling out, Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, The Huntsmans and the Pursuit of Power
Huntsman also doesn’t carry all the baggage that other candidates for secretary of state are toting. Both Giuliani and Petraeus have been actively campaigning for the post, but both are problematic candidates.
Giuliani acted as an attack dog for Trump during the campaign and probably must be rewarded in some way. However, Trump is said to be peeved with how forcefully Giuliani is seeking the post, and critics such as GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have said Giuliani’s work for foreign governments and paid speeches to questionable overseas groups should disqualify him. In one year alone, Giuliani made more than $11 million from his speeches, according to The New York Times. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for all the speaking fees she earned from Wall Street.
Trump’s attacks on Clinton for the email scandal in which she allegedly played fast and loose with classified information while secretary of state also presents a problem for Petraeus. Clinton was not charged with a crime after a lengthy investigation by the FBI of her use of private email for official business, but the president-elect’s rallies often included chants of “lock her up.”
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The general had to reign as director of the CIA after it was revealed that he shared classified information with his biographer and paramour. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was essentially given a slap on the wrist.
On ABC’s This Week last Sunday, Petraeus said: “Five years ago I made a serious mistake. I acknowledged it, I apologized for it, I paid a very heavy price for it and I've learned from it. And again, they'll have to factor that in and also obviously 38 and a half years of otherwise fairly, in some cases, unique service to our country in uniform and at the CIA."
But with three-star former General Mike Flynn as national security adviser and four-star former General James Mattis as secretary of defense, Petraeus (who also retired with four stars) might be a general too far.
Correction: The best-run state ranking was originally attributed to Pew Research Center rather than The Pew Charitable Trusts.