Democratic and GOP senators warn Trump against lifting sanctions on Chinese company ZTE

PHOTO: Marco Rubio talks about bipartisan legislation to create "red flag" gun law during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, March 22, 2018, in Washington, DC.PlayChip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH White House tries to explain Trump's tweet about ZTE

Senators on both sides of the aisle are urging President Donald Trump not to go easy on Chinese telecom company ZTE after friendly tweets over the past few days suggested he’s willing to lift sanctions on the firm.

A group of 32 Senate Democrats urged Trump Tuesday to maintain a seven-year ban on ZTE’s purchase of American-made components critical to the company’s production – a penalty put in place after the company sold products to Iran and North Korea and then failed to penalize officials as it had told the U.S. it would.

“America’s national security must not be used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations,” the senators wrote in a letter.

But in a series of tweets, Trump suggested exactly that: ZTE’s status with the U.S. is, in fact, part of larger economic talks. Several outlets reported Tuesday that the U.S. is discussing lifting the ZTE penalties to avoid agricultural sanctions China is preparing to impose on the U.S.

Two days ago Trump raised alarms by saying he was explicitly trying to help ZTE get back into business with the U.S.

Later Sunday, however, the White House walked back that directive to the Commerce Department, saying in a statement, “President Trump expects Secretary Ross to exercise his independent judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations, to resolve the regulatory action involving ZTE based on its facts.”

In addition to the 32 Senate Democrats who penned the letter, Republicans are also concerned that Trump is giving away too much.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has written a bill banning the U.S. government from contracting with ZTE or another China telecom, Huawei, used Trump’s preferred mode of communication to criticize Trump’s stated interest in easing penalties on ZTE.

Later Tuesday, Rubio went a step farther, delivering an address on the Senate floor criticizing the Trump administration's apparent thaw towards ZTE. He said lifting ZTE penalties in exchange for China lifting agricultural sanctions would give the impression that farmers in the U.S. had done something wrong.

He also pointed a finger at someone in the Trump administration who is giving the president bad advice.

"I know that's not where his instincts are," Rubio said, referring to Trump. "But someone's getting to him, I don't know if it's from Treasury or where it is, and basically telling him that now's the time to cut a deal. It's the wrong time to cut a deal, and this would be a terrible deal."

Earlier this month, the Pentagon banned the two Chinese firms from selling products in retail stores on military bases, over fears that they might be using devices to steal U.S. intelligence and intellectual property.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wondered on Twitter Tuesday whether there was a connection between a Trump Organization project in Indonesia, which is anticipating a $500 million loan from the Chinese government, and Trump’s new warmth towards ZTE.

In an interview with ABC, Wyden stressed that the link between the ZTE softening and the Trump Organization deal was only “possible.” Despite concern from both sides of the aisle about possible concessions to ZTE, the issue did not come up during Trump’s meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he does want to get more information from the White House about the potential arrangement.

“I'm concerned about that. I'm glad that China's helping us but allowing them to have sort of an entree in our technological world like this bothers me,” Graham said.

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