Since Branstad always intended to serve only one term, his departure was expected, according to several administration officials and people familiar with his thinking. But until a few weeks ago, Branstad intended to stay in Beijing until after the elections, according to two well-known sources. That changed when Trump asked Branstad to return to the United States and campaign for him after more than three years in Beijing.
“This is why it is ending early – because the president asked,” a source familiar with the request said.
Branstad has been friends with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 1980s, although his role as ambassador has become increasingly complicated in recent months as relations between the United States and China have frayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Branstad in the end was never able to exploit the personal relationship for the benefit of bilateral relations.
Trump referred to the outgoing Ambassador and his son Eric Branstad – who is a senior adviser to Trump Victory 2020, the joint fundraising committee between the campaign and the Republican National Committee – during a phone call with Iowa Republican Senator Joni. Ernst.
‘Still Sounds Good in the Midwest’
A source familiar with the move says Trump wanted him back in the US to help the Iowa campaign. Branstad had told the president in recent months, discussing his departure, that he wanted to stay in his role through the agricultural purchases that took place over the summer.
The Trump campaign believes Branstad could impact voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two familiar sources.
“He still sounds good in the Midwest. He has a high identifying name and is probably the best person to talk to about Chinese influence,” a source close to the Trump campaign said.
Biden and Trump remain in a very tight race in Iowa, according to polls in recent months. Trump won the state by about 10% in 2016.
It’s unclear if anyone told Trump that it would be a good idea for Branstad to go back to campaigning or if the president came up with the idea himself.
Experts say the repercussions shouldn’t matter as Branstad was not a central player in the US-China political space. While Branstad is not a prominent voice in the Trump administration’s harsh approach to China, he is expected to take a “more forward-leaning approach” when on the campaign trail, the source close to the campaign said.
“The president (Donald Trump) chose Ambassador Branstad because his decades of experience dealing with China made him the best person to represent the administration and to defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship,” he said. said Pompeo.
Pompeo did not provide a reason for Branstad’s departure, nor any announcement of a potential successor to the important diplomatic post.
One of the first choices of the Trump ambassador
Branstad was one of then-president-elect Trump’s first-choice ambassadors in December 2016, shortly after Trump won the US presidential election.
During that time, the two were believed to have maintained some sort of friendship, with Xi reuniting with Branstad during a visit to the United States in 2012 while still vice president.
Branstad’s appointment was originally welcomed by Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang praising him as an “old friend of the Chinese people.”
But Branstad oversaw one of the most difficult periods of US-China relations in recent history. Since his appointment, the Trump administration has imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods as part of a long-lasting trade war. It also banned Chinese tech companies like Huawei from the country’s communications infrastructure and receiving US components, and tightened visa restrictions for Chinese state media reporters working in the US.
“If you wish to publish this editorial in the People’s Daily, you should make substantial factual reviews in the principle of equality and mutual respect,” the state media publication said in its rejection letter.
Branstad, who remained largely out of the spotlight despite being the foremost American diplomat in Beijing during one of the most controversial moments in US and Chinese history, was considered loyal to Trump during his tenure. Those who know Branstad believe he will do what the Trump campaign demands.
“He is a good soldier, especially if he returns to potentially play a role in a second Trump administrator. He will talk about hiring China to save the farmers,” said Stephen Orlins, chairman of the National Committee. on US-China relations. “His message will be consistent with what the campaign asks of him.”
Labor-level State Department officials focusing on Asia were unaware of the Trump administration’s plans to appoint a new ambassador between now and Election Day, but were also largely surprised by Branstad’s departure in this moment, two State Department officials said. .
In recent months Branstad has taken on an even quieter role as in Beijing when tensions between the two countries flared up. In one case, it canceled a Zoom appearance with Americans engaged in US-China relations in June, which was expected just a week after the United States closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, according to a familiar source. with the event.
“The unfortunate reality is that Branstad has never been a key channel for communicating or negotiating with Beijing. While the US ambassador symbol is significant, in this case it simply did not play that role,” Evan Medeiros explained. former National Security Council. Director for Asia during the Obama administration. “Chinese politics was led by Pompeo. Washington did not use Branstad as ambassadors are traditionally used.”
This story was updated with further developments on Monday.
Caroline Kelly, Vivian Salama, and CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.