Senators are urging Trump to not let ZTE off the hook in trade talks with China

A bipartisan group of over more than two dozen senators sent a letter to the Trump administration on Tuesday urging it to stick with its initial plan to crack down on controversial Chinese telecom giant ZTE for violating US sanctions.

The letter, whose signers include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), calls for the administration to “protect national security interests” while in trade talks with Beijing and not make any concessions that could compromise them. It lists the Trump administration’s possible reversal on ZTE as one of those concerns.

Here’s the backstory. In April, the Commerce Department banned US companies from selling parts or providing services to ZTE, a huge company which makes inexpensive smartphones, because it shipped equipment to Iran and North Korea in defiance of US sanctions.

ZTE relies so much on parts that that are made in the US that the company immediately looked like it might go out of business.

But last week Trump tweeted that he was looking into reversing that decision and to give ZTE “a way to get back into business, fast.” Rather remarkably, he said he worried about the possibility of “too many jobs in China lost.”

It was a head-spinning policy reversal, and one that analysts said could deal a blow to the US’s credibility in enforcing sanctions in the future.

Despite criticism from both parties for Trump’s about-face, his administration seems to be moving ahead with that plan. According to a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday, the US and China have quietly already “agreed on the broad outline of a deal” that would save ZTE.

But lawmakers concerned about how Trump’s concession could hurt the US’s credibility — and about how ZTE could pose an espionage risk to the US by covertly using its cellphones for surveillance — are trying to block Trump from easing up on ZTE.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee added a provision to a must-pass spending bill that would bar the president from softening the administration’s crackdown on ZTE. And on Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee passed another version of that language 23-to-2.

“If the president and his team won’t follow through on tough sanctions against ZTE, it’s up to Congress to ensure that it happens,” Schumer said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the legislation was a major step “forward in our fight against the Chinese.”

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