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How Trump’s Paris decision drove the top U.S. diplomat in China to quit

June 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Four days after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the top American official in China, David Rank, tendered his resignation, citing the president's decision. Rank, who served 27 years in the foreign service, sits down with Judy Woodruff in his first interview since stepping down.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Last year, former President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping announced on the same day that the U.S. and China would join the Paris climate agreement, in an effort to forestall climate change through capping and reducing emissions.

China’s participation was seen as key. It is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, with the United States running second.

But on June 1, this month, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement, citing possible economic harm to the U.S. Four days later, the top American official in China, the charge d’affaires in Beijing, tendered his resignation, citing the president’s withdrawal.

His name is David Rank. He served 27 years in the Foreign Service. And he joins me now for his first interview since leaving government.

David Rank, welcome.

You knew, when Donald Trump was running for president, that he had said that the U.S. shouldn’t be in this climate accord. What was your thinking then?

DAVID RANK, Former U.S. Diplomat: Boy, I have served five presidents over 27 years. I have been through a lot of presidential campaigns. I have heard a lot of things both about the U.S.-China relationship and about other issues.

I suppose I thought, boy, that’s bad idea but there are a lot of bad ideas talked about in presidential campaigns, and we will see what happens when he becomes president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, when he made that announcement, what was your reaction?

DAVID RANK: You know, Judy, up until the day he — in fact, I would say the day before, I — it kind of caught me off-guard. It seemed so improbable that the U.S. would pull out, because Paris is a symbol of U.S. leadership in the region, in the world.

I mean, the benefits that accrue from being a leader and being in Paris just seemed to be so obvious that it sort of caught me off-guard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What were the benefits, in your mind?

DAVID RANK: Look, the — how many agreements are there in the world where two countries, now all but three countries in the world, are members, countries that are sort of the closest partners we have had for 70 years?

It’s one of the most important issues to those countries. And so the benefits of being the leader in that, of, as you said, working together with China to bring about, to make the Paris agreement possible, and being the true leader on climate issues, really is a remarkable benefit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why does climate matter to you?

DAVID RANK: Well, as I explained to my staff when I went, not only did it bother me from the perspective of bad policy, but also the obligation we have to our kids and, frankly, the moral obligation I feel to take care of the planet we have been given and the planet we leave our children and their children, and, you know, realizing that if we — from all of those perspectives, ask even to take very small steps, I realized that I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t in good conscience be party to the U.S. withdrawal. And so we have a disciplined service. You either agree to implement the president’s policy or you step aside. And so that was the solution I put forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, his argument that this was doing economic harm to the U.S., he talked about draconian repercussions for the U.S. thanks to the accord, and he said he wanted to negotiate a new deal on climate?

DAVID RANK: I’m quick to admit I’m not an expert on climate. And had there been a serious proposal, had we said, look, Paris is — instead of Paris, we want to do X, Y or Z, you probably would have changed the way I looked at it.

There hasn’t been any real indication of that. And I suspect — well, I will wait and see from the outside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How difficult a decision is this for you? You have been in the Foreign Service for 27 years.

DAVID RANK: Yes, I love my job. I love the people I work with.

I think — I would like to think I got up every morning, and with a feeling of gratitude for the ability to do what I was doing, to serve the American people, to work with a group of colleagues who were committed to the same sorts of goals I am. And it was tough. It was very difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you could have stayed. And I guess did anybody make the argument you could stay and fight and stand up for what you believe in?

DAVID RANK: Absolutely.

And I think there’s honor in that. And I made the case to the folks, because there are a lot of people who I think, not just in the embassy in Beijing, but across the State Department and across the government, who are asking themselves, if I fundamentally disagree, what do I do?

And my answer to that is, look, I have my own particular personal situation. I’m relatively close to the end of my career, or I was. I had been in for almost 30 years.

But if you have got 20 years ahead of you, then there’s real honor, honor to doing the sort of tough work, the slow and steady work that we as diplomats and really people throughout the U.S. government — I mean, that’s the role of the civil servant, the role of the public servant. And I think it is and will continue to be an honorable role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last thing, and separate from this decision, how do you see the state of relations right now between the United States and China, with President Trump pressing the Chinese in particular to lean on the North Koreans to pull back their nuclear program?

DAVID RANK: I think we’re early in the Trump administration.

I think it’s a positive thing that the president and his senior advisers have made it clear that it’s an important issue, that we have to grapple with North Korea. You know, it’s not the only issue between the United States and China, but certainly it is the one that is on the front burner.

But I think it will be a challenge. It will take hard work every day, not just by the president, not just by the secretary of state, but by the colleagues of mine who are still in Beijing and colleagues in the State Department and the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the U.S. government. It’s a real challenge to the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Rank, the former charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, up until, what, about eight or 10 days ago.

DAVID RANK: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much for talking with us.

DAVID RANK: Judy, thank you very much.

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