Because Branstad always intended to serve only a period, his resignation was expected, according to several administration officials and people familiar with his thinking. But a few weeks ago, Branstad planned to stay in Beijing until after the election, according to two 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.
“That’s why he quits early – because the president asked,” said a source familiar with the request.
Branstad has been friends with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 1980s, though his role as ambassador became more and more filled in recent months as US-China relations gossiped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Branstad was ultimately never able to exploit the personal relationship for the benefit of the bilateral relations.
Trump referred to the outgoing ambassador and his son Eric Branstad – who is 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.
‘He still plays well in the Midwest’
A source familiar with the movement says Trump wanted him back in the United States to help with the campaign in Iowa. Branstad had told the president in recent months, as they discussed his resignation, that he would remain in his role through the agricultural purchases that took place over the summer.
The Trump campaign believes Branstad could influence voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two well-known sources.
“He still plays well in the Midwest. He has a high name ID and is probably the best person to talk about China’s influence,” a source close to the Trump campaign said.
Biden and Trump remain in a very tight race in Iowa, according to polls over the past few months. Trump won the state by approx. 10% in 2016.
It is unclear if anyone told Trump that it would be a good idea for Branstad to come back and campaign, or if the president himself came up with the idea.
Experts say the consequences are not expected to be major, given that Branstad was not a key player in the US-China policy space. While Branstad is not a leading voice in the Trump administration’s tough approach to China, he is expected to take a “more forward-looking approach” when he hits the campaign track, the source said close to the campaign.
“President (Donald Trump) chose Ambassador Branstad because his decades of experience with China made him the best person to represent the administration and to defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo gave no reason for Branstad’s resignation or any announcement of a potential successor to the important diplomatic position.
One of Trump’s first ambassadorial elections
Branstad was one of then-President Trump’s first ambassadorial elections in December 2016, shortly after Trump won the US presidential election.
During this period, the two were believed to have maintained a kind of friendship, with Xi meeting again with Branstad during a visit to the United States in 2012 while still vice president.
Initially, Branstad’s appointment was welcomed by Beijing, where Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang hailed him as an “old friend of the Chinese people.”
But Branstad has overseen one of the most magnificent periods in U.S.-China relations in recent history. Since his appointment, the Trump administration has placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods as part of a protracted trade war. It has also banned Chinese technology companies like Huawei from the country’s communications infrastructure and receiving US components, and tightened visa restrictions for Chinese state media journalists working in the United States.
“If you want to publish this edition of the People’s Daily, you have to make material revisions based on facts in the principle of equality and mutual respect,” the state media publication said in its rejection letter.
Branstad, who has largely been out of the spotlight despite being the top US diplomat in Beijing during one of the most controversial moments in US-China history, has been considered loyal to Trump throughout his tenure. Those who know Branstad believe he will do what the Trump campaign asks.
“He is a good soldier, especially if he comes back to potentially play a role in another Trump administrator. He will talk about how it was necessary to take on China to save the farmers,” said Stephen Orlins, president of National Committee. on US-China relations. “His message will be in line with what the campaign is asking him to do.”
Foreign Ministry officials working in Asia were not aware of the Trump administration’s plans to appoint a new ambassador between now and election day, but they were also largely surprised by Branstad’s resignation at this point, two State Department officials said.
In recent months, Branstad has taken on an even quieter role than in Beijing, as tensions between the two countries have intensified. In one case, he canceled an off-the-record appearance with Americans involved in US-China relations in June, which was scheduled to take place just a week after the US closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, according to a source familiar with the event.
“The unfortunate reality is that Branstad was never a key channel to communicate or negotiate with Beijing. While the symbol of the US ambassador is important, in this case he did not play that role,” explained Evan Medeiros, a former national security adviser. Asia director under the Obama administration. “China’s policy was led by Pompeo. Washington did not use Branstad, as ambassadors are traditionally used.”
This story has been updated with further developments on Monday.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly, Vivian Salama and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.