Donald Trump fancies himself the greatest dealmaker the world has ever seen, but he lurches from one extreme to the other like a baby throwing a tantrum. After years of bashing the Chinese for the trade deficit, he has now instructed the Commerce Department to lift sanctions against ZTE, a maker of cell phones, that were just put in place last month for a variety of reasons. He apparently thinks that will help get the deal done in trade talks, but he undercut his own negotiators with that surprise announcement — on Twitter, of course.
ZTE had actually announced that it was going out of business after the federal government hit them with a huge penalty and locked them out of the American market a month ago. That was done for two primary reasons. First, because the company had violated sanctions against North Korea and Iran and because Chinese-made cell phones could present a serious threat of espionage and surveillance of American citizens. So now Trump is in the bizarre position of reimposing sanctions on Iran and threatening to punish even European companies that do business with that country while simultaneously lifting sanctions against a Chinese company for doing the very same thing. This is downright surreal.
Sen. Marco Rubio responded to this that there is a real threat to national security here because of potential espionage:
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
The FBI and many cybersecurity experts agree:
The head of the FBI and other intelligence chiefs in congressional testimony this year urged American citizens to steer clear of products from ZTE and its Chinese rival Huawei. And just two weeks ago, the Pentagon banned the companies’ phones from being sold on military bases, saying they “may pose an unacceptable risk to Department’s personnel, information and mission.”…
“It’s striking that he is overruling the judgment of his own national security apparatus in order to help a Chinese company succeed,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told me. “There’s often tension between economic issues and national security issues, and this tweet seems to suggest in this case the economic issues won out.”
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, called Trump’s instruction to his Commerce Department to assist ZTE “highly unusual, given the intelligence community has given several unambiguous warnings about using ZTE and Huawei products.”
None of this makes any sense whatsoever. Trump is talking out of both sides of his mouth because he has no coherent ideas or strategy on such matters. He’s just making it up as he goes along, to the detriment of our efforts to secure American cyber networks.