SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Russia said Vladimir Putin is likely “joyful” about the renewed prominence of a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was responsible for meddling in the 2016 election, which experts consider Russian disinformation.
“He’s probably joyful that he has the world talking about something he may have been behind,” Jon Huntsman Jr. said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. “That’s the way they operate in Moscow, to try to sow seeds of discontent between the United States and Kyiv.”
Huntsman is running for his old job as Utah governor after leaving the Moscow post, which he said likely had him spending as much time with the Russian president as any other American.
Trump continues to say Ukraine was behind interference in the 2016 election as he faces an impeachment inquiry related to allegations he pressured the country into investigating his political rivals. The FBI has confirmed Russia was behind the meddling.
The Republican agreed that there’s “no question” Russia meddled while saying he didn’t have direct access to all information on Ukraine. It could happen again in 2020, from Russia or a handful of players, and the U.S. may not be prepared.
“Let’s just say the capabilities are there to wreak havoc on our most prized institution of democracy,” he said. “We need to be prepared for it, and I don’t know if we are.”
He said he’s especially concerned about state and local election systems, where officials might not have the resources or information to know about threats.
The moderate conservative hasn’t quite endorsed Trump, who is less popular in Utah than in many other conservative states, but said he would back him in 2020.
“He has maintained a strong economy and we are not at war … we hear a lot about the downside. I think the election will focus more on the upside,” he said, adding that an election is better than impeachment on deciding whether the president should stay in office.
As he looks for a comeback in state politics, Huntsman downplayed the idea that becoming Utah governor again would be a platform between higher-profile roles, saying he’d serve out a four-year term if elected.
First elected in 2004, he was a popular leader who oversaw a period of economic growth and tax reform and had recently won a second term when he stepped down in 2009 to serve as U.S. ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
Huntsman mounted a short-lived run for president during the 2012 cycle, and five years later went abroad again as ambassador to Russia. Now, Huntsman said he’s ready to return to Utah.
“If I wanted to be secretary of state, I would have stayed where I was,” he said. “No call is going to take me away from doing the work of the people here in Utah.”