Because Branstad always intended to serve only one term, his departure was expected, according to multiple administration officials and people familiar with his thinking. But as of a few weeks ago, Branstad was planning to remain in Beijing until after the election, according to two sources familiar. That changed when Trump asked Branstad to come back to the US and campaign for him after more than three years in Beijing.
“That is why he is ending it 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 increasingly fraught in recent months as the US-China relationship frayed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Branstad was ultimately never able to leverage the personal relationship to benefit the bilateral relations.
Trump referenced 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 Sen. Joni Ernst.
‘He still plays well in the Midwest’
A source familiar with the move says Trump wanted him back in the US to help campaign in Iowa. Branstad had told the President in recent months as they discussed his departure that he wanted to stay on in his role through the agricultural purchases that happened over the summer.
The Trump campaign believes that Branstad could have an impact on voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two sources familiar.
“He still plays well in the Midwest. He has high name ID and is probably the best person to talk about the China influence,” said a source close to the Trump campaign.
Biden and Trump remain in a very tight race in Iowa, according to polls over the last few months. Trump won the state by about 10% in 2016.
It is unclear if someone told Trump that it would be a good idea for Branstad to come back and campaign or if the President came up with the idea on his own.
Experts say that the repercussions are not expected to be major, given that Branstad was not a central player in the US-China policy space. While Branstad is not a leading voice in the Trump administration’s tough on China approach, he is expected to assume a “more forward leaning approach” when he hits the campaign trail, said the source close to the campaign.
“President (Donald Trump) chose Ambassador Branstad because his decades-long experience dealing 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 didn’t give a reason for Branstad’s departure, or any announcement about a potential successor to the important diplomatic post.
One of Trump’s first ambassadorial picks
Branstad was one of then-President-elect Trump’s first ambassadorial picks in December 2016, shortly after Trump won the US Presidential election.
During that period, the two were believed to have maintained a friendship of sorts, with Xi meeting again with Branstad during a visit to the US in 2012 while still vice-president.
Originally Branstad’s appointment was welcomed by Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang lauding him as an “old friend of the Chinese people.”
But Branstad has overseen one of the rockiest periods of US-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 long-running trade war. It has also banned Chinese technology firms such as Huawei from the country’s communications infrastructure and receiving US components, and tightened visa restrictions on Chinese state media journalists working in the US.
“If you do wish to publish this op-ed in the People’s Daily, you should make substantive revisions based on facts in the principle of equality and mutual respect,” the state media publication said in its rejection letter.
Branstad, who has been largely out of the limelight despite being America’s top diplomat in Beijing during one of the most contentious moments in US-China history, has been viewed as loyal to Trump throughout his tenure. Those who know Branstad believe that he will do what the Trump campaign asks.
“He is a good soldier, especially if he is coming back to potentially play a role in a second Trump admin. He will talk about how taking on China was needed to save the farmers,” said Stephen Orlins, the president of the National Committee on US-China relations. “His message will be consistent with what the campaign asks him.”
Working-level State Department officials who focus on Asia were not aware of plans by the Trump administration to nominate a new ambassador between now and election day, but they were also largely surprised by Branstad’s departure at this moment in time, said two State Department officials.
In recent months, Branstad has assumed an even quieter role as in Beijing as tensions between the two countries have heated up. In one instance, he canceled an off-the-record Zoom appearance with Americans engaged in US-China relations in June, which was planned to take place just a week after the US shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, according to a source familiar with the event.
“The unfortunate reality is that Branstad was never a key channel for communicating or negotiating with Beijing. While the symbol of the US ambassador is significant, in this instance he just did not play that role,” explained Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council Asia director during the Obama administration. “China policy was being run by Pompeo. Washington did not use Branstad like ambassadors are traditionally used.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly, Vivian Salama and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.