White House and China trade excuses for stalled confirmation of Trump ambassador pick

President Trump shakes hands with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
President Trump shakes hands with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — When President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to his private Mar-a-Lago resort next week for their high-stakes first summit, he will do so without his pick to be ambassador to Beijing, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Branstad’s confirmation is being held up by an obscure diplomatic ritual, sources tell Yahoo News.

Knowledgeable congressional sources from both parties say the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t yet received basic paperwork from the Trump administration — including Branstad’s biography and his answers to the panel’s regular questionnaire. Branstad’s paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics landed at the committee only on Tuesday. And the State Department has yet to post his “certificate of competency,” a mostly run-of-the-mill document that is part biographical sketch, part list of attributes that show why a nominee is qualified.

Branstad’s confirmation hearing cannot be scheduled until the committee has his complete file, and some have blamed the turbulent inner workings of the Trump administration for the delay. But a White House national security source told Yahoo News on Thursday that the issue actually rests with the Chinese.

“His paperwork is complete, but we still need agrément from the Chinese” before sending the paperwork to the Senate, the official said.

No, not “agreement,” but “agrément,” though they broadly mean the same thing. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, protocol requires the destination country to sign off on the sending country’s choice of ambassador. In this case, China needs to sign off on Branstad, but hasn’t yet, effectively freezing the confirmation process.

The State Department declined to comment on the situation. The Chinese government, asked by Yahoo News whether it had provided “agrément,” noted that Branstad had not yet been confirmed.

When it comes to the Senate vote, Branstad is a near lock for confirmation. The robust economic relationship between Iowa and China — the third-biggest buyer of exports from the Hawkeye State, including much of its soybeans and pork — means the governor has worked with Chinese officials for decades. Xi himself visited Iowa in 1985, and personally welcomed Branstad to Beijing in 2011.

In a recent interview, Branstad suggested he might get confirmed in late April, maybe early May, at which point he would resign to take the diplomatic post. (It doesn’t help that the Senate is scheduled to be gone April 10-21.)

A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during the second plenary session of the National People's Congress.
A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during the second plenary session of the National People’s Congress. (Photo: Jason Lee/Reuters)

The vacancy is hardly a four-alarm diplomatic fire. The United States is represented in Beijing by Deputy Chief of Mission David Rank, a decorated 27-year State Department veteran who has held other challenging posts, including one in Afghanistan. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently visited China, in part to lock in the summit with Xi.

The delay is not without precedent, either. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama formally nominated former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to be ambassador to Beijing in mid-May, and he did not get there until mid-August. There’s no evidence that China is slow-walking Branstad’s nomination, which it praised back in December when Trump first announced his plans.

But Republicans and Democrats in Congress have privately expressed increasing concern about the slow pace of Trump nominations to posts requiring Senate confirmation, especially in the national security and foreign policy spheres.

Trump has announced other ambassadorial picks. He chose billionaire New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a major GOP donor, to be his envoy to Britain (but has not formally nominated him). Just this week, he nominated Tennessee businessman Bill Hagerty to be ambassador to Japan. Concert pianist/industrialist/“Sound of Music” fanatic Patrick Park said in February that he received a handwritten note from Trump suggesting that he’ll get the nod for ambassador to Austria (no formal nomination yet). News outlets have reported that Trump wants Huntsman to be the top diplomat in Moscow, though there has been no official confirmation of that, either, nor of reports that the president has settled on Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to be ambassador to NATO. Asked about those potential picks, aides to both sides on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they’d only seen news accounts and not official action from the White House.

Trump’s ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, took the oath on Wednesday. And the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, was sworn in on Jan. 25.

While Trump has let people without official government titles attend major diplomatic meetings — his daughter Ivanka was on hand when German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to the White House — Branstad won’t be at Mar-a-Lago, according to the Iowan’s communications director, Ben Hammes. Branstad has provided all of the required documentation to the administration, Hammes said, but “he’s still the governor.”

Hours after the White House announced the summit, Trump predicted on Twitter that the meeting would be “very difficult” and repeated past complaints about Beijing’s trade policies.

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