Even in an administration that has gotten us used to reversals and back-and-forths, President Donald Trump performed an impressive U-Turn on policy Sunday, when he wrote a tweet vowing to help Chinese telecom giant ZTE get back in business following devastating U.S. sanctions. Days earlier, ZTE had said it would cease “major operating activities” because of trade sanctions imposed by the United States. The Commerce Department had last month banned American companies from supplying to ZTE for seven years as a result of findings that it had illegally sold goods to Iran and North Korea.
In a tweet on Sunday, Trump suggested he told the Commerce Department to get ZTE back in business. “Too many jobs in China lost,” Trump wrote. “Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!” Trump also said he was working with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to give ZTE “a way to get back into business, fast.”
ZTE had already agreed to a $1.2 billion fine due to the violations of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Yet the ban was the result of the Commerce Department finding that the world’s fourth-largest smartphone manufacturer had failed to comply with terms of the agreement. Although American wireless companies don’t use ZTE products out of security concerns, the company relies on a lot of components from American companies for its products.
Analysts were immediately confused about the president’s tweet particularly because it seemed to be such a clear reversal fromhis usual tough stance on China. Plus in his tweets, Trump seemed to show concern over Chinese jobs rather than American ones, which has long been his rallying cry. Many were also confused as to why the president gave away what many saw as the main leverage the United states had over China in the tense trade discussions between the two countries. “If Mr. Trump was announcing a huge concession with his tweet, it was without any indication of what he might have gotten in return,” notes the New York Times.
Experts said the move by Trump was unprecedented because “it’s highly unusual for a president to personally intervene in a regulatory matter and could undercut the leverage of Treasury and Commerce officials seeking to enforce sanctions and trade rules,” notes the Washington Post. The move could send a sign to foreign leaders that the way to get their way with the United States is to convince Trump personally.
“I am speechless,” Kevin Wolf, who oversaw the launch of the ZTE case as assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, told the Financial Times. “I’m highly confident that a [US] president has never intervened in a law-enforcement matter like this before . . . It’s so outside the way the rules were set up.”