White House tells Senate not to overrule Donald Trump on ZTE

June 13, 2018 GMT

The White House warned Congress on Wednesday not to overturn President Trump’s lenient deal on Chinese telecom firm ZTE, saying it would be a violation of his presidential powers.

Officials are trying to head off the first major legislative rebuke for Mr. Trump, after senators struck an agreement this week on legislation that would reimpose a death sentence penalty on the Chinese company by banning it from access to U.S. markets and products.

White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Mr. Trump’s watered-down penalty a $1 billion fine and a U.S.-imposed oversight board is tough enough. And he warned that the president considered these decisions a core part of his powers.

“The administration will work with Congress to ensure the final [defense policy bill] conference report respects the separation of powers,” Mr. Gidley said in a statement.

ZTE was caught violating sanctions on doing business with Iran and North Korea, was slapped with a fine and promised to punish the executives responsible. But instead of punishing the executives, it rewarded them spurring the new penalties.

Initially, the Commerce Department delivered the death sentence penalty, banning ZTE from access to U.S. components, effectively destroying its business model.

But Mr. Trump, as a personal favor to the Chinese government, stepped in and prodded his administration for leniency. They reduced the penalty to the $1 billion fine and more oversight.

Senators spanning the ideological spectrum, including some of the president’s staunchest defenders, are resisting.

They crafted language that would overturn the fine and reimpose the original penalty.

Not only did ZTE violate sanctions, they say, but its ties to the Chinese government make it a likely conduit for espionage on the U.S.

Senators wrote an amendment to reinstate the original ZTE business ban and have attached it to the defense policy bill, being debated on the Senate floor this week.

A vote is likely to come Thursday, and all sides expect it to pass. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer tried to stiffen spines in the face of the administration’s opposition.

“We cannot back off on an issue so vital to America’s national and economic security,” he said.

House lawmakers approved their defense bill earlier this year, before the ZTE issue arose, so it’s not part of their version.

The two bills will have to be reconciled, and the White House statement signaled Mr. Trump intends to weigh in at that point and try to delete the punishment.

Administration officials say China earned some leeway for its help in negotiations with North Korea over that country’s nuclear program.

The president’s foreign affairs policies are increasingly being tested on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give Congress a chance to revoke the new tariffs Mr. Trump imposed on steel and aluminum imports.

And lawmakers floated ideas this week for how they might impose limits and conditions on any deal the president reaches with North Korea.

But for the most part, the administration has been able to tamp down revolts on Capitol Hill leading one Republican to complain the president has cowed his own party.

″ ‘Gosh, we might poke the bear,’ is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallways,” said Sen. Bob Corker, who was pushing for the legislation to reel in the new tariffs.