A meeting between President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress over the fate of Chinese telecommunications company ZTE was inconclusive, lawmakers said June 20, leaving the divisive issue undecided within the GOP.
As part of its annual defense package, the Republican-controlled Senate passed an amendment June 18 that barred Trump from removing export sanctions on ZTE. The Trump administration, however, has sought to keep ZTE in business as part of broader trade negotiations with Beijing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters the discussions dealt with China broadly, “but also ZTE,” and that they did not find a solution.
“I would say there was no conclusion to it,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told reporters.
ZTE was singled out in the Senate’s defense package for violating sanctions on Iran and for the possibility that it could be a sieve for the Chinese government’s cyber spies. The Senate’s version of the bill still needs to be merged with the House’s version, which does not have the ZTE provisions. The Trump administration has inserted itself into those negotiations, trying to parlay an embrace of ZTE into a broader trade deal with China. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has proposed a $1 billion fine for the Chinese company, alongside other requirements.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters the president expects to see lawmakers work out a compromise as they reconcile the House and Senate’s rival defense policy bills. Still, Trump made his position known.
“He wanted to make sure that the negotiation Secretary Ross had with the Chinese on the matter was understood and it was respected,” Cornyn said. “Given the fact the president is negotiating with China over things like North Korea and the like, he wanted to make sure his hands weren’t tied.”
One co-sponsor of the provision, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was invited to the meeting and declined to comment. Another one, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was not there.
“They didn’t invite me,” Rubio said with a grin. “I think they know I made up my mind already.”
It was billed as a closed meeting on the future of ZTE, but it became a freewheeling discussion on immigration, border security and the defense budget that the White House opened to the media.
Experts warn that Trump could be trading away parts of America’s cybersecurity for improved relations with China. A 2012 House intelligence report warns that Chinese telecommunications products being introduced in the U.S. should be viewed with suspicion.
“Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign-state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems,” the report said.
But the White House believes that a ZTE ban is a step too far. In a statement last week, deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said that “the administration will work with Congress to ensure the final NDAA conference report respects the separation of power.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.