Members from both parties reacted skeptically Monday to President Donald Trump’s intention to help troubled Chinese telecommunications company ZTE, saying they were concerned he was reversing his pledge to get tough on Beijing.
Trump campaigned, in part, on altering the United States’ trading relationships with the rest of the world, taking a particularly hard line against China and its practices. In 2011, he went so far as to say “China is raping this country.” So a Sunday tweet by the president raised eyebrows when he announced an effort with Chinese President Xi Jinping to “give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast.”
The “America first” president then proclaimed that ZTE’s failure would mean “too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!” The company — full name Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment — faced a shutdown after the Trump administration slapped strict sanctions on it for allegedly acting against U.S. sanctions on countries such as Iran and North Korea.
Trump ordered steel and aluminum tariffs on many imports, largely a move aimed at altering what the administration sees as unfair Chinese trade practices. But he also frequently lauds what he describes as his close personal relationship with Xi. For instance, during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month, Trump said Xi “has been terrific” on North Korea.
On the trade issue, however, many lawmakers believe the Chinese president and his government have been anything but.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a Monday statement that he has agreed with Trump’s calls for tougher policy on Chinese trade tactics. But he panned Trump for “backing off” on ZTE.
“His policy is now designed to achieve one goal: make China great again,” the New York Democrat said, riffing on Trump’s trademarked “Make America Great Again” slogan.
“The toughest thing we could do, the thing that will move China the most, is taking tough action against actors like ZTE. But before it’s even implemented, the president backs off,” Schumer said. “This leads to the greatest worry, which is that the president will back off on what China fears most — a crackdown on intellectual property theft — in exchange for buying some goods in the short run. That’s a bad deal if there ever was one.”
House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff said in a Sunday tweet that U.S. intelligence agencies “have warned that ZTE technology and phones pose a major cyber security threat.” And the California Democrat had this message for Trump: “You should care more about our national security than Chinese jobs.”
That was a reference to the president’s campaign pledge to bring jobs in sectors such as manufacturing back to the United States.
At least one prominent GOP senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, also expressed concern over Trump’s intention to save the Chinese firm.
Rubio tweeted Monday morning that he hopes “this isn’t the beginning of backing down to China.”
“While Chinese companies have unrestricted access to U.S. market & protection of our laws many U.S. companies have been ruined after #China blocked market access or stole their intellectual property,” he said.
The widespread criticism of Trump’s bailout tweet prompted the White House to issue a statement Sunday evening saying the president’s intention to help ZTE “underscores the importance of a free, fair, balanced, and mutually beneficial economic, trade and investment relationship between the United States and China.”
“The administration is in contact with China on this issue, among others in the bilateral relationship,” Lindsay Walters, a White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement. “President Trump expects [Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross] to exercise his independent judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations, to resolve the regulatory action involving ZTE based on its facts.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, whose Ohio district has been hit hard by the globalized economy, had a response that could showcase a likely line of attack against the president.
“GM Lordstown has lost 2,700 jobs over the last 18 months and hasn’t earned a single tweet from the President,” Ryan said, referring to cutbacks at a General Motors plant near Youngstown.
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