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Trump picks loyal supporter with deep China ties as U.S. ambassador

BY and   December 7, 2016 at 1:21 PM EDT
FILE PHOTO - Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping talks with Rick Kimberley (C) and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (2nd L) during a tour of Kimberley's farm, in Maxwell, Iowa, U.S. February 16, 2012. REUTERS/Charlie Neibergall/Pool/File Photo? - RTSV3PY

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, left, and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, center, during a tour of a farm in Maxwell, Iowa in 2012. Photo by Charlie Neibergall/Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the U.S. Ambassador to China, choosing a veteran Republican official with deep ties to China, and a loyal supporter during the general election.

Trump’s transition spokesman Jason Miller confirmed the decision in press phone call Wednesday morning. Miller said that Branstad accepted the position, which requires Senate confirmation.

Branstad, 70, is the longest-serving governor in U.S. history. He held the governor’s seat in Iowa from 1983 to 1999, and was re-elected in 2011.

Branstad has longstanding ties to China centered on agriculture and trade policy. He visited China on an eight-day trade mission earlier this year to discuss agricultural exports. It was his fourth visit to the country in the past five years alone.

China is Iowa’s third largest export nation, and one of the state’s fastest-growing trade partners, as the country’s demand for corn, soybean and pork increases. The Iowa governor has made boosting exports a priority in his administration.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s relationship with Iowa — and Branstad — goes back even further.

In 1985, when he was an up-and-coming member of the Communist Party, Xi spent two weeks in Iowa touring farms and staying with a local family. He returned to Iowa in 2012 when he was vice president. Branstad and Jinping have known each other for decades.

Chinese officials praised Branstad on Wednesday.

“We welcome him to play a greater role in advancing the development of China-U.S. relations,” Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Branstad had not spoken publicly about the offer as of press time. He met with the president-elect on Tuesday at Trump Tower in New York. Afterwards, Branstad told reporters he was “very proud” to have supported Trump during the campaign. Trump will “bring good jobs to our country, and make us more competitive,” Branstad said.

In the U.S, some China watchers reacted positively to Branstad’s nomination.

“[Branstad] is a person known to [China], and the Chinese value long-standing relationships,” said David Lampton, the director of China Studies at John Hopkins and chairman of the Asia Foundation. “So I think he’s a credible vehicle for messages the Trump administration would want to send to the Chinese leadership.”

Still, Trump’s relationship with China has gotten off to a rocky start. As a candidate, he threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the U.S. Trump also said he wanted to label China a currency manipulator.

More broadly, Trump has long argued that the U.S. needs to take a tougher stance with China to reduce America’s trade deficit and boost manufacturing jobs at home.

“Branstad’s appointment anchors the side of friendliness after [Trump] has thrown a few darts from the other side.”

And last week, Trump broke nearly 40 years of protocol when he spoke by phone with the president of Taiwan, which China does not recognize as an independent nation.

The call sparked controversy in foreign policy circles, even before a New York Times report showed that the call came about as the result of a lobbying effort led by former senate majority leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.

But some say the incident signaled Trump’s willingness to try new approaches on foreign policy.

“Trump has masterfully played out of both sides of the playbook,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations. “Branstad’s appointment anchors the side of friendliness after he has thrown a few darts from the other side.”

Lampton predicted that Branstad would be able to smooth over some of those disagreements, though he noted that Chinese leaders recognized that the U.S. ambassador will have less sway than the president and Congress when it comes to trade policy and other issues.

“Ambassadors can be important, but they can’t be a substitute for a clear policy by a president,” Lampton said.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as he speaks during Iowa Senator Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan - RTX2NAYW

Donald Trump and Branstad at a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines in August. Photo by Scott Morgan/REUTERS

Trump’s choice seemed to catch some observers by surprise. Branstad is a towering political figure in Iowa, but he is relatively unknown outside of the state.

But in Iowa, political watchers said the pick had been rumored for weeks.

“I don’t think anybody in Iowa is surprised,” said Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines attorney and longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I heard talk about this the day after the election.”

Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said party leaders in the state were expecting the move.

“While it’s still a shock to think that Terry Branstad is no longer going to be our governor,” Strawn said, “it’s something that we’ve had to prepare ourselves for the last couple of weeks.”

The appointment is also seen as a reward for Branstad’s loyalty to Trump during the general election, several sources said.

Branstad did not endorse Trump until May, but he was a loyal supporter the rest of the way. The governor’s son, Eric Branstad, served as the Trump campaign’s state director in Iowa, helping to cement the family’s relationship with Trump.

Branstad also convinced the state’s Republican leaders to back the party’s presidential nominee, at a time when many GOP officials were still keeping their distance from Trump.

In the end, Trump carried Iowa — a state that Hillary Clinton had hoped to win, and one that had only voted once for the Republican presidential nominee since 1984 — by nearly 10 points.

“The results in Iowa were astounding. Iowa is not a red state,” said Nick Ryan, a Republican consultant in Iowa. “Governor Branstad was a big part of that.”

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