DES MOINES – While conceding some anxiety over his pending deployment to China as America’s next ambassador, Gov. Terry Branstad said he believes he is soon to embark on the opportunity of a lifetime.
Branstad, 70, the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, said in an interview Thursday he is leaving a job he loves as Iowa’s chief executive, but he felt he couldn’t turn down a request from President-elect Donald Trump to serve his country in a key foreign-policy role after getting the blessing of his wife and family members.
“When the person who is going to be the president of the highest office in this whole country says I think your knowledge and experience with the Chinese people and with the leaders of China could be helpful to our country in an issue that is extremely important and contentious, well, boy, I think that’s a really hard thing to turn down,” Branstad said.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I think if I turned this down I would always regret it,” he added.
Branstad was in New York last month on a sell Iowa trip to meet with economic development prospects when he and his wife, Chris, stopped by Trump Tower to visit with the president-elect whom the governor strongly supported during the 2016 general election campaign. His son, Eric, guided Trump’s Iowa election effort.
A short time later, Trump announced his intent to nominate Branstad to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China, citing the governor’s friendly relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping dating back to the mid-1980s when Xi was a young county official seeking a closer relationship with Iowa's agriculture sector. Trump said Branstad’s decades of public service along with his knowledge, experience and close ties to top Chinese leaders made him “the ideal choice” to serve as America’s ambassador to one of the world’s most powerful nations.
Branstad said he was humbled and honored to accept Trump’s nomination – which is still subject to confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“First of all, I didn’t think my wife would ever have any willingness or interest to do this,” Branstad said in the interview, “but when Chris and the rest of the family said they were intrigued by the idea and they thought even the grandchildren spending some time in China would be a great experience for them” that pretty much sealed the deal.
“We had several family discussions about it,” he added, “but I tell you there’s still some anxiety in my family. Every one of us has some anxiety about this. This is a big change. It’s moving half way around the world. It’s a very different culture.
“It’s obviously a very contentious relationship we have, and I still have a lot to learn,” Branstad said. “I have a lot to learn about foreign policy and some of the issues that the ambassador has to deal with. But I guess I’m intrigued and excited about the opportunity. I want to make the best of it. I know it’s a huge – using a Donald Trump term – it’s a huge challenge, it’s also a huge opportunity. I want to make the most of it.”
Branstad has divided his time over the past month preparing to deliver his final Condition of the State address and two-year state budget to the Legislature next Tuesday and filling out a detailed questionnaire as part of the process of being nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to China.
Branstad said he plans to submit the information to a number of federal agencies as well as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider whether to confirm his nomination. He said he plans to attend Trump’s inauguration in Washington later this month and use the opportunity to meet personally with some of the committee members.
Branstad served as Iowa’s governor from 1983 to 1999 before returning to the office in 2011. Since leading his first delegation to Hebei Province in 1984, the governor has led six trade missions to China – including one last fall -- meeting with numerous provincial governors, ministerial leaders and local officials.
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