Editor's Note: In a series of interviews in Moscow and at his home in Salt Lake City, Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. talked to Deseret News reporter Jesse Hyde about the loss of his father, his political future, and whether the Kremlin has dirt on President Donald Trump. The exchanges below have been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: There are a lot of questions about the relationship between President Trump and the Kremlin. There are questions of collusion, others say it's all a hoax. What's it like being in the middle of that storm?
Jon M. Huntsman Jr.: I know the debates that are going on in the U.S. I don’t need to tune in to any of the networks to have that amplified. I live the reality of the U.S./Russia relationship, which is a different reality than people talk about in Washington and in interviews on television, probably driven in most cases by folks who don’t have a clue of what’s going on but are doing it for the entertainment value. I’ve just got to get the work done and it’s the work of the United States. You just tune out the noise in the background.
DN: Going into the Helsinki Summit, you were on "Meet the Press," and you talked about the stakes of the summit. When the president started answering questions and about election meddling, siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than U.S. intelligence, what went through your mind?
JMH: This is the president being the president. You can laud him or fault him, but he’s consistent. And he’s taken a consistent streak in certain aspects of how he governs his presidency, which in a lot of ways is a strength. What was not reported and not necessarily talked about was a lot of the work that went on behind closed doors with the two senior teams and how we were able to air our issues, talk about concerns, talk about areas of agreement and then talk about priorities going forward that we want to begin to build more capacity around. So you can either live in a void where the conspiracy theories and the estrangement is going to result in a more dangerous world — that’s what some people would choose to do and that’s where we’ve been drifting for some time — or you can in this very tense environment find yourself at the negotiating table.
DN: What do you make of Trump’s business ties to Russia?
JMH: I don’t know. I have no history with the Trumps and Russia. I’ve never seen a Trump in Russia. And I’ve never heard about their business activities in Russia. So I’m familiar with the American business community in Russia, I know who the players are and who the leaders are and I’ve just never heard a thing about it. And I would if there was something substantial (in Russia) and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot there.
DN: What did you think of the assertion the Russians have some sort of Kompromot (compromising material) on the president and that’s why at times he seems so chummy with Putin?
JMH: (Laughs) I think I’d be in a position to know if there was something of that nature. And I’m hard pressed to connect the dots on this collusion stuff, I just don’t see it.
DN: There was a lot of speculation that you wrote the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times that was very critical of the president. Is there any truth to that?
JMH: I had a list of mainstream media contacting me, writing me and asking, saying they’ve got on-the-record proof or somebody saying (it was me). It was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ If you sat down and thought about it for 30 seconds, would you conclude that, I mean, realistically? We had our squabbles before, Trump and I, which he reminds me of whenever I see him, in a humorous, joking way, ‘You said this about me.' Fair enough. Or maybe I don’t fit the ideological mold that you’re supposed to fit, and so boom, somebody’s got it figured out, one of these geniuses that writes for one of these magazines.
DN: What did you think of the op-ed?
If somebody has a gripe, and they’re highly placed in the administration, there are enough opportunities to bring forward your points of view and have them heard and have them registered. To have a sort of a hidden cabal that is pursuing an agenda antithetical to what the duly elected folks want, I think is subversive. And that’s not a strength for our system.
DN: You lost your father earlier this year. How has that affected you?
JMH: My dad was my best friend. I think about him every day. He called me one day and he said, “I’m done. I’m going to start hospice care." He had been in pain and suffering a lot. I didn’t know what to do. So my best friend in life is telling me this is it. He’s going to go to hospice care and that will be the beginning of the end. Some last a few days in hospice and some last a few months. I knew my dad. When you make a decision you go. You pursue it with everything you’ve got and I knew from that point that he’d made that decision.
I kind of pleaded with him, “Give it more time.” I said, “I don’t know what I’ll be able to do losing a best friend to say nothing of a dad,” and it was hard because I knew it wasn’t a private conversation. I knew I had people tuning in, so it’s hard to know what you can say to your own dad without getting too personal. The phones are pretty routinely monitored (by Russian surveillance) and it inhibits your flow of conversation.
We had our final conversation about 1 in the morning. He called and said he’d made the decision to go and I said I support it. I told him I loved him and I was losing a best friend. I wanted to get back in time to see him and we got out as quickly as we could on a flight. We landed and I got a call from one of my brothers, they were all around his bed at this point.
We’re going up to the home and it was literally minutes before we got there that he died. And I was in the passenger side of the car and Mary Kaye was in the back and that was a very tough moment. We go up to the house and I was the only one who wasn’t up there and there he was.
I still think about him every day. I miss him a lot. We confided in each other, a lot.
DN: Are you really done with politics?
JMH: I never thought I’d be in politics. So it’s all pretty serendipitous. So far. I don’t see myself as a politician. I’m not a very good politician. I could never give a political speech like you’re supposed to give a political speech. I just failed miserably. I couldn’t say the stuff on the presidential campaign trail that you’re supposed to say in ripping the other guy apart. I just couldn’t do that. And when I tried it came across as disingenuous and so I quit. But I’ve also learned in public service and politics there’s a lot of serendipity to it and it’s a convergence of opportunity and preparation and when they come together things happen you just don’t plan on.
DN: So if the mood of the country changed, you could possibly run for president again?
JMH: Can’t imagine. Candidates in recent times pretty much have to be fit for entertainment. Because politics at that level is almost 100 percent entertainment. If you’re not an entertainer, if you don’t have a schtick, a top hit that you can go out and perform in front of all audiences for a year or two straight, you ought not to do it. If you want to go out and talk about the issues and solutions for the issues in any level of detail there just isn’t any market for that.
DN: So what does that say about the state of our democracy that our republic wants an entertainer?
JMH: The interesting thing about our democracy is it’s difficult to predict and forecast. Who would’ve thought we’d elect an African-American in 2008? We break barriers all the time and we try things on for size and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s all in the spirit of this open act democracy, where we try things and sometimes stumble and fall. We’re an innovative nation that carries with it the sense of a new frontier. So wherever we go I say, "I’m not going to balk at it because it’s just another chapter in our evolving democracy."