The Trumpstad Report: China, Confirmed

Trump hair: Lorie Shaull/Noun Project, mustache: Aldric Rodríguez Iborra/Noun Project

Part of a series on the ties that bind Iowa’s former governor and the president.

Last week, four months after President Trump nominated him for the position, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was confirmed as ambassador to China by an 82-13 Senate vote, with 12 Democrats and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders opposing his appointment over his support for gutting labor rights and defunding Planned Parenthood in the state earlier this year.

In a moment of supreme irony, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — who for months last year as head of the Judiciary Committee refused to even hold hearings for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court — slammed Democrats for prolonging the hearing “not because they wanted to debate the merits of the nominee, but simply to delay the business of this body,” adding during a floor speech before the vote, “It’s unfortunate that their delay has kept an eminently qualified individual from getting into the job to promote American interests in China sooner.”

In fact, Branstad’s confirmation had already stalled for well over a month, with the Trump administration and Chinese government blaming each other for the delay. But finally, the former governor is officially China-bound, handing over the reins of state government to his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, to continue a relationship with Xi Jinping that began in the mid-’80s when the Chinese president was the director of a feed cooperative in China’s Hebei Province visiting Iowa to learn about US farming techniques. (The state currently exports over $1 billion of agricultural products to China annually.) A Chinese publisher has already inked a deal with Iowa journalist Mike Chapman to translate his glowing biography of the former governor that describes his history with the nation.

Branstad’s appointment, then, was welcome news for the Chinese government, which overlooked much of Trump’s combative rhetoric on the stump toward the emerging superpower and has supported some of his policies as president including his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but has grown wary of his potential willingness to act on other campaign promises. As Trump continues to guarantee uncertainty, Branstad offers refreshing stability.

Still, Branstad’s new position won’t likely be easy. He has already been dispatched to smooth over a brewing ethanol trade war, and outside of agriculture, he has little experience with Chinese affairs. Moreover, as David Skidmore, a Drake University political science professor, wrote in December for the Des Moines Register, his greatest obstacle may be the man who appointed him, who campaigned “without knowledge of history, precedent or prior commitments” in international policy matters. “Trump’s unusual and erratic communication style also presents a challenge,” Skidmore added. “If diplomacy by tweet continues once Trump enters the White House, then Branstad will have his hands full putting out fires caused by his own boss.” And it remains unclear whether the president will heed Branstad’s advice or continue to rely on the direction of Jared Kushner, his embattled son-in-law, and Exxon CEO-turned-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But indeed, Trump has raised eyebrows in Beijing, entertaining a phone call with the president of Taiwan, threatening to establish enormous tariffs on China’s exports, and slamming the nation on Twitter over trade and its position on disputed territory in the South China Sea. More recently, on the day after Branstad’s confirmation vote, the president, away on his first foreign trip, caught China’s attention by way of a report in the New York Times revealing he had previously casually divulged military secrets to Rodrigo Duterte, the brutal Philippine president, telling him the US has “a lot of firepower” in the sea near China’s ally North Korea. “We have two submarines — the best in the world,” he boasted. “We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.”

Tomorrow, Trump was supposed to return to Iowa for the first time since December. Instead, he postponed the Cedar Rapids event, returning to the US “emotionally withdrawing” and under the cloud of a growing Russia scandal. Now, the event is planned for mid- to late June and will reportedly double as a sending off party for Branstad. After he departs, he will see familiar faces soon enough again — Gov. Kim Reynolds has already planned an agriculture trade mission to China in July that will be financed in part by the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.