In a Deseret News exclusive, reporter Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call went to Moscow to meet with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. In a series of conversations, Huntsman reveals what happened immediately after the Helsinki summit, the tense state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia, and how a new personal health scare is putting his life and career in perspective.
MOSCOW — In the early morning hours of July 17, Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Russia, boarded a plane for Brussels. He had just left the Helsinki Summit, the first official meeting between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Now he was being dispatched to meet with the ambassadors of the 28 other NATO nations to assuage concerns.
In the days before the summit, Huntsman, the former Utah governor who had previously served as ambassador to Singapore and China, had tried to lower expectations. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” he had insisted that it wasn’t really a summit because there would be no state dinner and no agenda. He also said he wasn’t sure what Trump and Putin would discuss, but felt confident Moscow’s well-documented interference in the election would come up.
The day had gone well, Huntsman thought, although he didn’t know what Trump and Putin had discussed during a two-hour meeting alone with their translators. He said he and the team of senior staffers — which included the secretary of state, the White House chief of staff and the national security adviser — prepped the president for the subsequent press conference, which would be the first time the two world leaders would stand together to take questions.
Putin spoke first, for roughly 10 minutes, and he was followed by Trump, who didn’t say much that would cause a furor back home. Then the questions started. A reporter asked Putin if he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election and if he had ordered any of his officials to help.
“Yes I did,” Putin said. “Yes I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S./Russia relationship back to normal.”
A few minutes later Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press asked Trump if he believed Putin, who insisted Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, or his own intelligence agencies. In a rambling answer, Trump said he trusted Putin, questioned the integrity of the FBI, and mused about the location of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.
A New York Times photographer captured the reaction of Trump’s senior staff, who were seated on the front row. In the picture, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has his eyes closed and is scratching his head, which is tilted to the side. Huntsman has also closed his eyes. His chin is tucked, his shoulders slumped. It’s unclear if he’s wincing or grimacing or letting out an exasperated sigh. His daughter Liddy would later tweet that watching the summit she saw a look on her father’s face she hadn’t seen since she returned home after briefly running away in high school. The tweet has since been deleted.
The fallout from the press conference was swift and severe. Sen. John McCain, Huntsman’s political idol and close personal friend, excoriated Trump, saying “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Mitt Romney, Huntsman’s onetime political rival, called Trump’s comments “disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.” And former CIA director John Brennan declared Trump’s performance “nothing short of treasonous.” Even Huntsman’s daughter Abby, then a host on FOX News, weighed in on Twitter: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”
Because Huntsman was in a secure location, briefing the 28 other NATO ambassadors about the summit, he was not getting any phone calls, and was not aware of the growing furor back home. Several ambassadors were concerned about what they’d heard come out of Trump and Putin’s meeting and needed assurance the NATO alliance was still strong.
After the meeting, Huntsman was ferried in an armored vehicle to Truman Hall, the home of the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The home sits on 27 acres in the Flemish countryside, down a winding cobbled road lined with trees. The sprawling property includes gardens and meadows and gentle rolling hills. After a long and tense day in Helsinki it was the perfect place to decompress.
That night, Huntsman was eating dinner with Ambassador Hutchinson and General Curtis Scaparroti, the supreme allied commander, when the calls started coming in. They were on a secure line.
One was from the national security advisor. The other was from the vice president of the United States.
They both wanted to know the same thing.
Did Jon Huntsman Jr. plan to resign?
Meeting in Moscow
In early August, just a few weeks after the Helsinki Summit, Huntsman agreed to meet with me in Moscow. I had pestered him off and on via email about a sit-down interview for nearly a year. “My life isn’t terribly glamorous, just the gritty issues managing our most challenging account, along with our efforts in Syria, DPRK, Ukraine, arms control, etc etc.,” he wrote back to one of my queries. “The stuff of bread and butter diplomacy in the real world.”
I had only spoken with him once, briefly on the phone, and we had never met. My impressions of him were formed wholly by observation and reputation. I had heard that his entire life he’d been trying to get out from underneath the shadow of his billionaire father, the late Jon Huntsman Sr. Perhaps that explained why he had dropped out of high school to start a rock band. It also explained why he had pursued a career in public service, rather than working full time in the family petrochemical business like his brothers. He wanted to be his own man.
This was painfully obvious in every profile I read of him. He took reporters to taco stands, made a point of wearing a jean jacket instead of a suit, and talked up his Fillmore roots and love for motorcycles as much as possible.
His critics on the right called him a “trendy Republican” who had embraced gay rights and loosened Utah’s liquor laws in a gambit to make him appealing to a national electorate.
But I wondered about this depiction. It seemed equally likely that because Huntsman was good-looking and rich and came from Utah royalty, he’d been underestimated and dismissed his entire life. “The mistake a lot of people make with Jon is because he’s so polished they underestimate that there are a lot of IQ points there,” a Utah political operative told me. “Frankly, some of the things he did as governor, like the stance he took on gay rights, didn’t make a lot of sense politically. He did them because it’s what he believed, even if it hurt him politically.”
Since bowing out of the presidential race after coming in third in the New Hampshire GOP primary in 2012, he had chaired the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, and helped launch a political action committee called No Labels, a centrist group dedicated to the not-so-sexy task of reducing partisan gridlock. He had flirted with running for Senate, but decided against it. As far as politicians go, he seemed like a man without a country.
Political insiders in Utah couldn’t figure out why he’d agreed to work as ambassador under Trump. The two men couldn’t be more different. Where Trump was brash and proud of his wealth, flying in a private plane emblazoned with his name, Huntsman was understated and quiet (“a tad too sheepish and way too self-effacing,” Republican ad man Fred Davis had written in his journal during the 2012 presidential campaign). Most importantly, their views on foreign policy seemed diametrically different.
Huntsman lists as influences a four-volume tome by Winston Churchill, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Toqueville, and two books by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore. As governor, he didn’t know where Springville was but could be overheard talking with his chief of staff, now Sen. Mike Lee, about an obscure skirmish in the Caucasus. In conversation, he’s the type of guy who pronounces Chile and Hamburg correctly. He seems born to be a diplomat.
Trump, on the other hand, has shown a disdain for traditional norms of diplomacy and either a disregard for staffing embassies around the world or an intentional effort to dismantle “the administrative state,” or as he sometimes calls it, “the deep state.” The first budget the Trump administration floated to Congress proposed a 27 percent reduction to State Department funding, halving the United State’s contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions, and even editing the mission statement of the State Department, removing the words “just” and “democratic” from the list of qualities the U.S. hopes to foster throughout the world, according to Ronan Farrow’s “War on Peace.”
When Huntsman was appointed ambassador to Russia, more than 30 ambassadorships were still vacant, including in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and 20 of 22 assistant secretary positions were unfilled. These positions give ambassadors a first line of contact with the White House. Without them in place, ambassadors either have to reach the secretary of state for guidance or muddle on without any guidance at all. Earlier this year when the ambassador to Mexico stepped down she wrote that she could rarely get in touch with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get directions on NAFTA or answer questions from the Mexican president on the U.S. plan. She wrote that she tried to reach senior career colleagues from the Office of the United States Trade Representative and the Commerce Department, but they were in the dark too. The ambassador to Panama, who stepped down last December, said Trump’s foreign policy had “warped and betrayed” the traditional values of the United States abroad.
Since his confirmation hearing, Huntsman and Trump had seemed to be on the opposite page when it came to Russia. Huntsman had been unequivocal in his belief that Russians meddled in the 2016 election and vigorously supported sanctions in response. He supported the Mueller investigation.
All of which had created some confusion about where Huntsman’s loyalties lie and why he was in Russia, serving a president he had once said was unfit for office. After the president’s comments in Helsinki, there had been calls for Huntsman to resign. One came from John Weaver, the Republican strategist who had run his 2012 presidential campaign. “If you have any honor, resign,” Weaver tweeted.
That was followed by a visit to Moscow by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who said he was delivering a letter from Trump to Putin proposing resumption of talks on arms control. The White House later disputed this characterization, but it initially appeared as if Trump was using Paul as his messenger boy, rendering Huntsman irrelevant.
“Should he ever call on Putin or his various ministers, to protest some human-rights violation in Russia, or atrocity in Syria, or some other objectionable act, the Russians can — quite reasonably — dismiss his complaints as mere noise,” Slate columnist Fred Kaplan wrote. “Trump has shown them that, when it comes to real messages from the White House, Huntsman is no longer his man — and therefore, of no use in Moscow.”
Then, just weeks before I arrived in Moscow, an anonymous op-ed appeared in the New York Times. Written by a senior official inside the Trump Administration, it announced the existence of a quiet resistance within the administration, working behind the scenes to thwart the worst impulses of the president. The op-ed was published a few days after the release of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and seemed to confirm Woodward’s portrait of a chaotic and dysfunctional White House where senior staffers might remove documents from the desk of the president to protect the country.
The op-ed devoted significant space to Russia, noting that the president showed a preference for autocrats and dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, alienated allies and expressed frustration at Trump’s reluctance to impose sanctions on Russia.
The prose was “flamboyantly erudite,” and “pious,” noted Slate columnist William Saletan, which matched the man he thought wrote it. He picked out certain words Huntsman used regularly in interviews and speeches (such as “malign activity”) and a theme of country first, which Huntsman had used as a campaign slogan when he ran for president.
Glenn Beck, a close personal friend of Huntsman’s late father, Jon Sr., also speculated Huntsman penned the op-ed, as did John D. O’Connor, the attorney for Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal.
The spokesperson of the U.S. Embassy in Russia, Andrea Kalan, tweeted out a denial in behalf of Huntsman: “Come to find, when you’re serving as the U.S. envoy in Moscow, you’re an easy target on all sides. Anything sent out by me would have carried my name. An early political lesson I learned: never send an anonymous op-ed.”
Still, the speculation that he had written it continued. As did questions about whether he would resign.
The official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Spaso House, sits about a mile from the Kremlin, in a neighborhood that was occupied by the Czar’s dog-keepers and falconers in imperial Russia. Today, it’s a leafy, well-heeled neighborhood where people drive BMWs and walk little dogs around a park out front, a few blocks from a luxury mall that sells British dress shirts.
The house is painted in the pastel yellow of an Easter egg with roman columns and a large lawn out front. It is surrounded by a tall wall and an iron gate, and anyone who wants to enter must first present credentials to two guards who stand sentry outside in a small security shed.
Inside, up a row of marble stairs carpeted in red tones, the main floor feels like the wing of a museum, with a grand hall 82 feet long, crowned by a soaring dome ceiling and a chandelier designed by purveyors to the imperial court. There are busts of Lincoln and Franklin, black and white photos of Kissinger and JFK, snapshots of Reagan and Gorbachev. At evening receptions I attended, mingling among European and South American diplomats, I felt like I had been transported into a James Bond movie, where the waiters serving deviled eggs on silver platters might just be KGB spies.
Huntsman told me he assumed the Spaso house is bugged. Upstairs in his private residence, an area he allows no one but his family to enter, a seal of the United States once hung in the family room. It was a gift from Russian schoolchildren. It wasn’t until the United States had technology to sweep the room for bugs that a listening device was found. It had been implanted in the eye of the eagle and hung there, in the ambassador’s private quarters, for at least 10 years, Huntsman said.
He told me that when he does have to have a private conversation with his wife, or get in an argument, they’ll walk the 10 minutes it takes to get to the embassy, where they can take an elevator to a floor that’s impenetrable to listening devices. This form of surveillance is like an “omnipresent sort of jacket.” “You’re followed, you’re watched, you’re listened to as aggressively as any country in the world and for some people that means very aggressively,” Huntsman said. “Folks sitting down at the table next to you, letting you know they’re there.”
“There are a lot of different ways they can make life quite difficult and it’s happened and it continues to happen,” he said. “Family pets killed, tires slashed, things left behind in your home, just as a reminder that we were here. It can add up psychologically where you begin to feel a little vulnerable.”
He admitted some of his friends had questioned his decision to take the ambassadorship. Politically, Trump was divisive in Utah, and anathema to the moderate wing of the Republican Party, which Huntsman was most ideologically aligned with.
But coming to Moscow had not been a political move. It fit a pattern. He told me friends had also questioned his decision to work as a U.S. Trade Representative to George W. Bush. “People said Iraq was a disaster and (Bush) was tainted and all that.” When he agreed to go to China as U.S. ambassador under Obama, the political press considered it a masterstroke by Democrats to sideline the Republican candidate Obama’s aides considered their biggest threat in 2012.
“I was told repeatedly when I went to China, ‘You’re going to serve a Democrat? You’re done. You’re done with politics.’” He laughed. “Maybe they were right.”
“Same thing when I agreed to serve under President Trump. ‘You’re doing what? You’re going to serve again, under a new administration that maybe hasn’t fully developed its worldview yet?’”
He brought up his sons, two Naval Academy grads now serving active duty. One was a Navy diver, the other flew fighter jets. Mary Kaye said she had lost sleep the night before worried about her pilot son.
“Can you imagine, landing an F-18 on an aircraft carrier in the roiling Atlantic at night, in pitch black?” Huntsman asked. A stricken look flashed across his wife’s face. “I’m up all night worrying,” she said.
“Our sons don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Well, what party is our president and do I agree or disagree and then I’ll decide whether to deploy.’ That’s not the way we operate,” Huntsman said. “We salute those who are duly elected and try to do our best to serve. It’s pretty simple.”
The more Huntsman talked, the easier it was to imagine him as a president. For starters, he looked like a president, or at least a leading man HBO might cast as a president, especially when he put on a pair of aviator shades to take his dog Sammy on a walk around the neighborhood.
As we left the grounds of Spaso House, I asked Mary Kaye if it ever frustrated her someone like her husband — measured, classy, kind, decent — wasn’t the president. She gave me a sideways glance and grinned wickedly.
“He’d never get elected these days,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“He’s not crazy enough.”
The next day, Huntsman invited me to walk to work with him, to get a scope of the embassy and some grasp of its operations. Unlike Spaso House, which was built in the 17th century, the embassy is new, metallic, and feels like a fortress. As we walked through its warren of buildings, Huntsman said he felt like the mayor of a small city. There is a barbershop here, a post office, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and even a pub. Senior embassy staffers live on site, and as we stepped into a courtyard between buildings he pointed out the bikes kids had left scattered on the grounds that morning before rushing off to catch the school bus.
Since the election, Russia and the U.S. had been in an escalating tit for tat, a Cold War-style grudge match that most affected the people who worked here. It had begun six months into Trump’s term, when Congress passed sweeping sanctions against Russia for its interference in the election.
In response, Russia had ordered the U.S. to expell 755 personnel from its diplomatic missions in the country. The U.S. had then shut down the Russian consulate in San Francisco and Seattle. Huntsman told me the shutdown of the San Francisco consulate was particularly significant because of its proximity to Silicon Valley and the assumption it had been an epicenter for Russian cyber activity against the United States.
Most recently, Russia had expelled 60 senior diplomats, targeting department heads who had spent their entire careers studying Soviet and Russian history and building up a particular area of expertise.
“They purposefully picked off couples, dividing them, we have tandem couples, you will go and you will stay,” Huntsman said. “Knowing it’s totally wrecked their lives professionally.”
The closure of the St. Petersburg consulate was ominous. “You can’t even name me the last time a consulate of the United States was closed down short of war,” he said. “You don’t do that. You don’t take the American flag down from a diplomatic facility, doesn’t happen.”
The State Department is guided in part by the idea that diplomacy is every bit as important as military force to maintain global order and seeks equal footing with the Pentagon, which is one reason the State Department keeps a chart that shows what rank, say, the head of the Commercial Service at the embassy would be if it were a military office. On the chart, ambassador is the equivalent of a four-star general.
When I asked Huntsman if he served the president or the country, he said he made no distinction between the two. “The president is an extension of the country, and represents the will of the people.”
He had voted for Trump, he said, and my impression that they were on the opposite page when it came to Russia was wrong. He is executing an administrationwide agenda and his comments on election meddling and holding Russia accountable were “interagency blessed.” He insisted the president had said “the right things” on election meddling.
“It seems that when he does say it nobody pays any attention to it,” he said.
I asked him if the president had held Russia accountable for election interference in the private meetings in Helsinki, which took place just days after the Justice Department had indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials for hacking the servers of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign.
“Every one. Every one of them. I’ve been in all of them. Election meddling is brought up.”
“By the president?” I asked.
“So this is the Secretary of State, the national security advisor, but yeah, the president talked about all these issues in the private meeting with President Putin where they were together. I’d guess it was brought up because they’re pretty consistent in terms of talking about it and certainly over lunch these issues were talked about."
“...A lot of diplomacy is conducted behind closed doors,” he continued. “Emphatic statements have been made. There is no lingering doubt about the importance of this issue. I can’t imagine anyone in the high commands of the Russian government would be thinking, gee, maybe we can do this.”
I asked him how big of a deal he considered Russian interference in the 2016 election, noting McCain had called it an act of war.
“It’s a very, very serious violation of our political sovereignty. I say political sovereignty because it went right to the heart and soul of our values and our belief system as a country, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” he said. “It’s the believability, the trust in our democracy, our system, and when you start to rip that down and divide and create propaganda messaging that begins to split people and take positions on both extremes on issues like guns and race relations, this has potentially a deleterious impact on the well-being of our civil society.”
Cyber, he said, is the new form of warfare. We no longer live in a time of troops amassing on the border, or fighter jets dropping bombs on strategic targets, he said, at least when it came to aggressions between superpowers.
“We still don’t know how to provide a defense against cyberattacks, still,” he said. “You can plus up and get better technology and better prophylactic measures but anyone who wants to attack you on the offensive side has an advantage, which in the other domains of war is not the case.”
What would happen if Russia did try to interfere with the upcoming midterms, I asked.
“We don’t want to foreshadow what it could be,” he said. “But it could be pretty dramatic.”
On Trump and power
The more time I spent with Huntsman, the more I began to wonder if I had severely misread him. He seemed to genuinely like and admire Trump, who he told me reminded him of his dad, who passed away earlier this year. Trump had an innate understanding of the dynamics of power, he told me, because of his experience in the “rough-and-tumble” world of New York real estate. This gave him a unique vantage point from previous presidents when negotiating with someone like Putin.
He also told me Trump was a dedicated family man and a good listener with a sophisticated view of the world.
When I asked him to help me square this with most of what was written about Trump, and what I’d seen him say on TV and Twitter, he bemoaned the state of journalism and said he longed for the era of Harrison Salisbury, the first New York Times bureau chief in Moscow, when journalists were dedicated to “educating and elucidating.”
At the same time, it wasn’t clear how often Huntsman interacted with the president (he told me they spoke “regularly,” but wouldn’t get specific). He disputed characterizations of an administration that didn’t care about diplomacy, leaving embassies understaffed and ambassadorships unfilled. “That’s baloney,” he said. He reiterated that he was on the same page with the White House and the president’s instructions to him on “improving the relationship” with Moscow hadn’t varied from day one.
What exactly Huntsman did to improve the relationship was a bit of a black box, because most of what he did — beyond the receptions at Spaso House and ceremonial glad handing I could observe — was classified, he told me.
“How much?” I asked him one day.
“Ninety percent,” he said, but later told me he was joking.
The big items Huntsman had hoped to accomplish when he came to Moscow, like renegotiating the nuclear arms treaty, remain unfinished. Huntsman told me there were two reasons for this. The first was Washington. Big diplomacy items require Senate approval, and that wasn’t going to happen with the Mueller investigation and questions about Russian interference in elections looming. The second problem was the Kremlin. When I asked him what surprised him most about the Russians, his face soured. “How intractable they can be,” he said. We weren’t exactly in a Cold War, but outside of the apparent chumminess between Putin and Trump, everything else coming out of Washington and Moscow suggested a tense, adversarial relationship.
On my last night in Moscow, Huntsman summoned me to the Spaso House. He was hosting a concert for diplomats stationed in Russia and wondered if I could arrive a few minutes before the reception. He had something to tell me.
When I arrived, it was dark and drizzly, and black sedans carrying ambassadors were pulling up to the gates of Spaso, the flags of their respective countries flapping in the wind, their headlights cutting through the misty night. I handed my passport to the security at the gate and was ushered inside.
The reception was underway. The room was humming with the low roar of conversation. I heard French and German and Russian, the clinking of wine glasses and silverware. Huntsman and Mary Kaye were in the receiving line, shaking hands. I caught Huntsman’s eye and an aide motioned toward the library.
Trailed by his spokesperson and Mary Kaye, Huntsman followed me inside and shut the door. He looked concerned and I noticed a small bead of sweat on his forehead. He began by asking me not to print something he had told me. Ambassadors can’t make political statements, he said. And then he told me he had cancer.
“It’s just stage 1,” he said. “So we’ll probably get it taken care of, and we’ll be fine.”
He had noticed a small black spot behind his ear, he explained, another on his thigh, and that summer on a trip home to Utah he’d stopped in at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and had his doctor check it out.
When he got back to Russia, he got the news. He told me he was flying back to Utah the next week to get it treated. I stood there shocked.
“It kind of puts things in perspective,” he said.
It had been quite the year, he continued. In February, he had lost his father to cancer. On the day he got the notice, he also got a phone call saying a childhood friend had died. That was also the day he got calls from reporters saying they had on-the-record confirmation he’d written the op-ed and delivered it when he was in the country for McCain’s funeral, which he continues to deny. “You sort of learn what to focus on and what to ignore,” he said.
The concert was about to start. We took our seats in the ballroom and the lights dimmed. The cello quartet had flown in from New York and specialized in mashing up classical compositions of Mozart or Dvorák with pop hits from Lady Gaga or Adele.
As they began to play I looked around the room. There were diplomats from tiny Baltic nations and allies like Germany and Austria seated in the audience. I imagined them squirreled away in their varied embassies, processing visas, helping expats navigate the dizzying maze of regulations Russia imposed on foreign businesses.
Like Huntsman had told me the first time we’d exchanged emails about Russia, most of the work the embassies did wasn’t all that glamorous or exciting. It was largely tedious, and it seemed like after a long week of work everyone in the crowd welcomed the brief respite. Who knew how many of them were under the sort of surveillance Huntsman endured. Here, they could finally relax, and I noticed most of them smiling and a few mouthing the words to pop tunes they recognized.
I looked to the front of the room where Huntsman was sitting. A classically trained musician, he had briefly flirted with a career in music, starting a prog rock band called Wizard. He had told me how he played clubs in Salt Lake in the ‘70s, trekking around downtown in a Ford Econoline van with his band, who sat on folding metal chairs in the back that tumbled over ever time he took a turn too fast.
Just the other night, he’d jumped onstage at Moscow’s Gorky Park to play keyboard with a Russian band that did Chicago covers. Mary Kaye had shown me a video of the performance she’d posted on Instagram.
I expected to see Huntsman grinning, maybe tapping his foot. But he wasn’t smiling. His eyes were closed, his face tense. He didn’t know I was watching him, and for the first time, I felt like I got an unfiltered sense of what it felt like to do this job.
Salt Lake City
About a week later, I typed in the code to the gate that leads to the Huntsman home in Salt Lake City and drove up a winding road until I arrived at their house. The home sits in Federal Heights, directly above the University of Utah, and offers a view of the entire valley.
Huntsman and Mary Kaye had flown in unannounced. They didn’t want anyone in Moscow to know he had cancer, worried about what they might do with the information. Already, he was subjected to a steady stream of propaganda about his activities in Russia created by state media. He had no idea what they’d do with a cancer diagnosis, but didn’t want to find out. (He asked me not reveal his diagnosis until the publication of this article).
Mary Kaye was seated on a couch in a large room off the kitchen. Large windows looked out on the valley. There was a large piece of calligraphy of a Chinese aphorism on one wall, a stuffed giraffe near the television and other toys for their grandchildren.
Mary Kaye had just turned on “The View.” Their daughter Abby had recently become a host and this was Mary Kaye’s first chance to watch the show live. She told me Jon was outside hiking, which she didn’t think was such a good idea. He’d been in surgery to remove the cancerous moles for several hours just days before and was still bruised up.
I saw him approaching, hiking up a hill below the house. He was dressed in a white T-shirt with HUNTSMAN stenciled across the front, black shorts and hiking boots. He showed me the jagged six-inch scar behind his ear, and where the surgeon had cut into his leg to remove the other mole, which had left a purple bruise.
We talked about the procedure, and how the doctors had told him because they’d caught signs of melanoma quickly, and now removed the moles, he’d probably be fine. Every month or so for the first year he will have to get checkups to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread.
Which led us back to if he’d ever thought about resigning. As he pointed out, it had been a tough year. He’d lost his father to cancer, he’d lost McCain, his political idol to cancer, and now he’d been diagnosed himself. Sitting in his large, comfy house above the valley, the large screen TV on, wouldn’t it make sense to just stay here, watching his daughter host “The View,” playing with his grandkids on the floor and riding motorcycles down to Utah’s national parks? He was worth millions, after all, and he could do whatever he wanted. Winter was coming in Moscow, long days with no sunshine.
He rubbed the long jagged scar behind his ear. They’d caught the cancer in time. He’d be fine. He brought up the career diplomats he worked with at the embassy back in Russia. They served regardless of the administration. Mary Kaye had told me while we were in Moscow how she had become close with staffers in the embassy, some lifelong members of the Foreign Service, and had no idea if they were Republicans or Democrats. If Huntsman had quit after the Helsinki summit, it would be the equivalent of a four-star general walking off a battlefield because he was embarrassed by the president’s tweets. And after all the expulsions and the shuttering of the St. Petersburg consulate, that would have cratered morale.
The question of whether he would resign troubled him. He worried about what it said about the current state of America. “Sometimes you’re going to win, sometimes you’re going to lose, but let’s try to work with the people who win and make it the very best you can,” he said of the 2016 election. “We’ve entered the worst phase right now which is we’re now going to try to spend four years ripping down the person who has won, as opposed to saying, ‘What can we do to contribute to their success in areas that will make the country better and stronger?’”
He and Mary Kaye gave me a quick tour of the home, pointing out art on the walls they’d picked up during their time in China, the midshipmen hat one of their sons had worn at the Naval Academy, and letters from the presidents Huntsman had served under.
As I was leaving we stopped in a room just off the entryway. It was Huntsman’s office. Books on foreign affairs lined the shelves and mementos from his service as governor were scattered about. The most notable thing, though, were the flags placed in front of the window looking out over the valley. There was a flag of each country where he’d served as ambassador, a flag for the state of Utah, a flag for the Navy, the branch of the military his sons belonged to, and in the center of it all, a flag for the United States.
He shook my hand firmly and wished me well. He had a flight to catch to Moscow.
Postscript: Last week, Jon Huntsman Jr. was selected by the State Department as the 2018 winner of the Sue M. Cobb Award for Exemplary Diplomatic Service. His selection was "based on his powerful leadership in navigating his team through ongoing and complex crises, and for upholding American values while effectively managing bilateral relations," according to Andrea Kalan, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassay in Moscow.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said melanoma eventually killed the late Senator John McCain, once it spread to McCain's brain. While Senator McCain did have melanoma, he actually died of a primary brain cancer – malignant glioblastoma – and not brain metastases from melanoma.