Idaho state GOP chairman Steve Yates would like everyone to know:
He is currently in Idaho, not Taiwan.
He is not on the Trump-Pence transition team.
He has not been offered a job in the Trump administration.
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He did not set up the congratulatory phone call President-elect Donald Trump took Friday from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that has upended nearly 40 years of Chinese-American diplomacy.
He did, however, know such a conversation was in the works. And he is not displeased it happened.
“All of these congratulatory phone calls, to the best of my knowledge, they come from those who are conveying the congratulations,” Yates said Saturday, at home in Idaho Falls. World leaders, he said, are trying to “get themselves in the queue” to make contact with Trump. “By luck, strategy, or whatever means, the Taiwan request worked its way up the queue.”
As the diplomatic fallout from Trump’s Friday phone call with the Taiwanese president made its way around the globe, Yates’s name surfaced as the facilitator of the call. Reports originating in Taipei were picked up by U.S. outlets including CNN and the Washington Post. Those initial reports were being corrected Saturday.
Yates starting getting inquiries Friday night. They continued into the “wee hours” before he called it a night.
Yates is an Asia expert with ties to the region that go back 30 years. He was a deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005, and his consulting firm advises on managing international political risk and business opportunity.
He has a master’s degree in China studies from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and speaks fluent Mandarin. He served as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in 1987-89.
Yates leaves Sunday for Asia and will be in Taiwan for several days starting Tuesday as the guest of the Prospect Foundation, a think tank in Taiwan. That itinerary, along with what he described as casual connections to the Trump transition team, got jumbled by the “famously creative press in Taiwan.”
“I’ve had some interactions with the transition team partly because I’ve been through this process and I want to help these people succeed,” Yates said. “In the course of those kinds of back-and-forth sessions, I did get a tip from a media person who I saw on Facebook that this (phone call) is happening.”
In “informal but confidential” consultation with the transition team, Yates “got the sense that a call had been in the works for some time and was in fact going to happen. I indicated that I thought that was a fine idea and basically left it at that. All of that was done from the comfort of lovely Idaho.”
Yates is a critic of U.S. policy toward Taiwan in relation to the Chinese government in Beijing. The U.S. recognized the Communist mainland as the sole government of China in 1979, but maintains unofficial diplomatic relations and economic ties with Taiwan, which includes weapons sales.
He said it was “factually incorrect” to suggest “that I’m an adviser to the transition or that I’ve been offered a position in the administration. Nothing’s been offered, and my family hasn’t suggested that they would be on board with me actually going back to ‘Fantasy Island’ for a few years,” he said, meaning Washington, D.C.
Yates was in Boise in recent days and met Wednesday with Vincent Yao, director of a regional Taiwanese economic and cultural exchange organization in Seattle. He said his upcoming Taiwan trip had nothing to do the Trump transition and that he is “not an envoy of the transition.”
“It’s purely something that is in the works as a kind of a professional, friendly, intellectual exchange of ideas, and an opportunity for me to go and visit with some very longtime friends,” he said.