President Trump risks a furious political backlash if he agrees to soften U.S. penalties for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to speed trade talks with China, according to former administration officials and trade analysts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to ask Trump to lift a ban on U.S. companies selling components to Huawei when the two leaders meet at the G-20 summit in Japan Friday night Washington time.
Prominent lawmakers including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah and Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia have warned the president not to ease up on Huawei, which the president has described as “very dangerous” to U.S. security.
“Lifting #Huawei ban would be catastrophic mistake,” Rubio tweeted Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned the president: “Stay tough. Do not give in. Make sure Huawei can’t come to the United States, and we cannot supply it.”
The Commerce Department last month placed Huawei on its “entity list,” which requires U.S. companies to obtain a government license before supplying the Chinese company. Administration officials say the Chinese government could exploit Huawei equipment to spy on or disrupt U.S. communications networks.
The Commerce move, often regarded as a corporate “death penalty,” came days after trade talks between Washington and Beijing collapsed, dashing hopes of a sweeping deal. Trump then said that he might make a package deal with Xi that would address trade issues and the fate of the Chinese company, which reported almost $105 billion in sales last year.
Derek Scissors, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the only question is what price Trump exacts in return for conceding on Huawei. The president prioritizes reducing the U.S. trade deficit more than potential vulnerabilities in U.S. networks, he said.
But mounting congressional concern about China could turn a Huawei case into a revolt, the occasional administration adviser said.
“You’re not going to have any trouble overriding a veto,” said Scissors. “If [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell allows a vote, you’re going to get 75 senators.”
David R. Hanke, a former Republican aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee and now a partner at Arent Fox, added, “There’s going to be bipartisan anger.”
For hawks, Trump’s recent Huawei remarks recalled his handling last year of ZTE Corp., another Chinese telecommunications company that Commerce had blacklisted. After Xi complained about the potential loss of Chinese jobs, the president agreed to lift the ban in return for ZTE paying a $1 billion fine.
An analysis of Huawei products released Wednesday found that more than half had serious security flaws that would allow access to unauthorized users.
“In virtually all categories we examined, Huawei devices were found to be less secure than those from other vendors making similar devices,” concluded Finite State, a Columbus, Ohio, cybersecurity firm.
Huawei has denied allegations that it represents a danger to U.S. security.
In the trade talks with Beijing, the administration wants China to buy significantly more U.S. products and to stop discriminating against foreign companies.
As Trump prepares to meet Xi in Osaka, Japan, lawmakers are stepping up warnings against trading security for those goals.
“Huawei and the other companies placed on the entity list were added because their structure, financing and controlling powers are a clear and present danger to America’s long-term security,” Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Thursday. “Removing any of these entities as part of a trade deal is sacrificing the safety of American families for some quick bucks and political points.”
Along with the Commerce Department action, the president last month signed an executive order that sets the stage for banning Huawei from providing equipment for any U.S. network.
“Going forward, Huawei is going to be a smaller company, a more geographically constrained company, still focused heavily on developing countries,” said Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force general who served on the National Security Council earlier in the administration.
Some analysts suggested the president might lift the ban on U.S. companies supplying the Chinese company while still prohibiting Huawei from selling its gear in this country.
“One could argue that there is a difference between allowing Huawei into your networks and letting them produce handsets for use outside the United States,” said one person familiar with administration thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates.
Administration officials also are urging U.S. allies to avoid Huawei. In a June 13 letter, Rubio and Warner said the prospect of Trump shelving security concerns to make a trade deal was undermining those efforts.
In recent days, administration deliberations about areas of potential agreement for the leaders’ meeting have been in flux. Some analysts said the president would hold firm.
“Two weeks ago, I was really worried. Now, I’m a little less worried,” said one person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak to the news media. “But we’re living in Trump-land, so you just never know.”