Sunday, May 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to create "jobs in China" by inexplicably reversing course on sanctions against a Chinese telecom company.

By any standard, the Chinese company ZTE was a problem for the United States. It had been caught violating sanctions against Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Sudan. The U.S. intelligence community also suspected it of cooperating with the Chinese government, which would create a weakness to espionage or cyberattack. In February, the directors of the FBI and CIA--both Trump appointees--urged Congress to forbid ZTE to sell its phones in the United States. Few Americans on either side of the political spectrum shed any tears when, just last week, it announced it would effectively shut down.

Then, this afternoon, Trump announced that he had personally ordered the Commerce Department "to give [the] massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast."

Coming from Trump, who ran as an economic populist and who said that China was "raping our country" economically, a pledge to create Chinese jobs is bizarre. (Perhaps belatedly realizing how this look, his next tweet urged his followers to "be cool.") 

The White House--which may once again have been caught off-guard by a sudden Trump impulse--had very little in the way of explanation that didn't directly contradict what Trump had said. A statement from a spokesperson said that "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." But Trump's tweet said nothing about "independent judgment," only that he had ordered the Commerce Department to "get it done."

Regardless of the political or economic fallout, the bigger problem is Trump's decision to intervene directly in a law enforcement matter. One former White House official put it to the Washington Post,
Now we’ve opened up every law enforcement action that the United States takes, where other countries will think, "Aha, I can impose this economic pain or this tariff or this market access restriction, and I can use this as a chit to trade off against more favorable treatment with the law enforcement case."
Also today, Trump's national security advisor John Bolton said that U.S. may well sanction companies in allied countries who do business (legally) with Iran.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's insane to reward a potential hostile foreign agent for breaking the rules, while punishing allies for acting within the law.
  • Whether or not you agree with a given policy move that a president makes, it should at least be possible to figure out why he made it.
  • A serious threat to the cybersecurity of the United States is a poor choice for leniency.