Since Branstad only ever wanted to serve one term, his departure was expected, according to several administrative officials and people familiar with his thinking. However, a few weeks ago, Branstad planned to stay in Beijing until after the elections, according to two known sources. That changed when Trump asked Branstad to return to the US and promote him after spending more than three years in Beijing.
“That’s why he’s ending it early – because the president asked,” said a source familiar with the question.
Branstad has been friends with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 1
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 Republican Senator from Iowa Joni Ernst.
“He still plays well in the Midwest”
A source familiar with the move says Trump wanted him back to the US to support the campaign in Iowa. Branstad had told the President in recent months when discussing his departure that he wanted to stay in his role through the agricultural purchases made in the summer.
The Trump campaign believes Branstad could have an impact on voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two well-known sources.
“He’s still playing well in the Midwest. He’s well known and probably the best person to talk about China’s influence,” said a source close to the Trump campaign.
According to polls over the past few months, Biden and Trump remain in a very close race in Iowa. Trump won the state by around 10% in 2016.
It’s unclear if anyone told Trump it would be a good idea for Branstad to come back and camp, or if the president came up with the idea himself.
Experts say the impact is unlikely to be great given that Branstad has not been a central player in the politics between the US and China. While Branstad is not a leading voice in the Trump administration’s tough China approach, he is expected to adopt a “forward-looking approach” if he goes down the campaign path, the source close to the campaign said.
“President (Donald Trump) chose Ambassador Branstad because his decades of experience in dealing with China made him the best person to represent the government and defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship,” said Pompeo.
Pompeo gave no reason for Branstad’s departure or an announcement of a possible successor to the important diplomatic post.
One of Trump’s first ambassador tips
Branstad was one of the first ambassadors for then-President-elect Trump in December 2016, shortly after Trump won the US presidential election.
During this time, the two had probably cultivated some kind of friendship, and Xi met again with Branstad during a visit to the United States in 2012, when he was still Vice President.
Initially, Branstad’s appointment was welcomed by Beijing, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang praised him as “an old friend of the Chinese people”.
But Branstad has overseen one of the rockiest periods in 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 longstanding trade war. Also, Chinese tech companies like Huawei have been banned from the country’s communications infrastructure and US components have been received. In addition, visa restrictions for Chinese state media journalists working in the United States have been tightened.
“If you want to publish this statement in the People’s Daily, you should make significant changes based on facts based on the principle of equality and mutual respect,” the state media publication stated in its letter of rejection.
Branstad, despite being largely out of the spotlight in Beijing at one of the most controversial moments in US and China history, America’s top diplomat, was seen as loyal to Trump during his tenure. Those who know Branstad believe he will do what the Trump campaign calls for.
“He’s a good soldier, especially if he comes back to possibly play a role in a second Trump administrator. He’ll talk about how it was necessary to take over China to save the farmers,” said Stephen Orlins, the President of the National Committee on US-China Relations. “His message will be in line with the requirements of the campaign.”
State Department officials focused on Asia were unaware of the Trump administration’s plans to appoint a new ambassador by Election Day, but they were also largely surprised by Branstad’s departure at the time, two officials said Foreign Ministry.
In the past few months, Branstad has played an even quieter role than in Beijing as tensions between the two countries have intensified. In one case, in June, he canceled a confidential Zoom appearance with Americans involved in U.S.-China relations that, according to a known source, was due to come just a week after the U.S. closed the Chinese consulate in Houston 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’s symbol does matter, in this case he just didn’t play that role,” said Evan Medeiros, a former national Security Council Asia Director during the Obama Administration. “The China policy was carried out by Pompeo. Washington did not use Branstad in the way traditional ambassadors do.”
This story was updated on Monday with further developments.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly, Vivian Salama and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.