Though he may have been too busy to buy his wife a birthday present last month, President Trump is a big fan of mothers. On Sunday morning, he tweeted a video in which spoke of the "incredible spirit" of those who birthed us while marveling at "how they pioneered the West and settled the frontier." He then took off for the golf course. As we've come to realize, though, no holiday or trip to one of his resorts can keep the president from using his Twitter account to shake up the news cycle, which is exactly what he did a few hours later when he made a strange pivot in regard to America's relations with China.
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
Trump’s concern for Chinese jobs seems a little off-brand for a president who has repeatedly touted an "America First" approach to foreign policy. Though Trump and Xi appear to have a cordial relationship, most still consider the world’s most populous nation an adversary to the United States, and instructing the Department of Commerce to help save one of its companies for dubious reasons – it's hard to believe Trump has suddenly developed a soft spot for the welfare of the Chinese worker – raises a few questions.
ZTE, China’s second-largest telecommunications manufacturer and the fourth-leading provider of smartphones in the U.S., was crippled last month when the Department of Commerce announced a seven-year ban on the company's ability to purchase components made by American companies. In 2017, the U.S. fined ZTE $1.19 billion for violating sanctions on conducting business with Iran and North Korea, and last month's ban comes after it was discovered that the company lied to the U.S. about punishing the employees responsible for the sanctions violations. "ZTE misled the Department of Commerce," Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement. "Instead of reprimanding ZTE staff and senior management, ZTE rewarded them. This egregious behavior cannot be ignored."
Last Wednesday, the company, which had relied heavily on American parts, announced it has halted operating activities. The tweet from Trump implies that he has instructed the Department of Commerce to in some way amend its punishment of ZTE. On Sunday afternoon, White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters released a statement saying that "the administration is in contact with China on this issue" and that the president "expects Secretary Ross to exercise his independent judgement, consistent with applicable laws and regulations, to resolve the regulatory action involving ZTE based on its facts."
Both in 2017 (when the $1.19 billion fine was levied) and in April (when the seven-year ban was announced), Ross exercised pretty harsh judgement against ZTE, so it’s unclear what the president "expects" from the Secretary of Commerce at this juncture, if Walters' statement is to be taken at face value.
Doing business with Iran and North Korea while sanctions were in place isn’t the only reason ZTE is of concern to the United States. In February, officials from the CIA, NSA, FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the company – along with Huawei, China’s largest telecommunications manufacturer – posed a security threat to Americans. "We’re deeply concerned about risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain power inside our telecommunications networks," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "It is something we have to be very vigilant about."
Lawmakers on both sides echoed Wray’s concerns following Trump’s tweet on Sunday.
Our intelligence agencies have warned that ZTE technology and phones pose a major cyber security threat. You should care more about our national security than Chinese jobs. https://t.co/7Ygh7805jg— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 13, 2018
Problem with ZTE isn’t jobs & trade, it’s national security & espionage. Any telecomm firm in #China can be forced to act as tool of Chinese espionage without any court order or any other review process. We are crazy to allow them to operate in U.S. without tighter restrictions https://t.co/AXtTDgufc9— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 14, 2018
Not only have lawmakers, the Department of Commerce and the intelligence community come down hard on the Chinese telecommunications companies, so, too, has the White House. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that an executive order had been drafted to restrict the sale of ZTE or Huawei products in the United States, and the administration has in the past stated the importance of winning the technology war against China.
It’s anybody's guess, then, what the president wishes to accomplish by instructing to the Department of Commerce to revive one of China's largest and most globally influential technology companies. It could have something to do with the upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, as President Xi has been viewed as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea. In the past two months, Xi has met with the Kim twice, and Trump could be hoping he can in some way help grease the wheels in regards to a potential disarmament deal.
Later on Sunday, Trump tweeted again about China, noting that it’s difficult for them to make a deal that benefits both countries because of the degree to which they have taken advantage of America in the past. Instructing the Department of Commerce to relax its punishment on a Chinese company that has violated sanctions, lied to the United States and been cited as a national security risk is a massive concession on Trump's part, so it would stand to reason that China should be offering up something pretty massive in return, whether it be in regard to trade, North Korea or something else.
"Be cool," Trump tweeted. "It will all work out!"
China and the United States are working well together on trade, but past negotiations have been so one sided in favor of China, for so many years, that it is hard for them to make a deal that benefits both countries. But be cool, it will all work out!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that China is playing nice with Trump because they see his presidency as a strategic opportunity, and though Trump has said that he and President Xi "will always be friends," the Chinese leader may be angling for something other than an overseas BFF as he wields influence over these attempts at diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.
When Trump visited President Xi in China last year, he expressed admiration for how the nation was able to take advantage of his predecessors. "I don’t blame China," Trump told reporters. "Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?"
Directly or indirectly, Xi has convinced Trump to direct the U.S. Department of Commerce to alleviate what it determined was just punishment on a Chinese company in order to save Chinese jobs and, as a result, preserve a significant arm of China's global technological influence. Though on the surface it may seem like China is taking advantage of the United States, the president urges those concerned to chill.