Don’t be surprised if Donald Trump and administration officials push back on the media for the way the president’s conciliatory rhetoric around Huawei was characterized on Saturday.
The president’s comments about the company in the post-G20 press conference were characteristically convoluted. It was, frankly, impossible to decipher precisely what Trump meant by the following:
One of the things I will allow, however, and a lot of people are surprised, we sell and we send to Huawei a tremendous amount of product that goes into the various things that they make. And I said that that’s ok. That we will keep selling that product. These are American companies, John, that make product. And that’s very complex by the way. Highly scientific.
In certain respects that sounds unequivocal (“We will keep selling that product”), but he did mention national security concerns. “US companies can sell their equipment to Huawei. We’re talking about equipment where there’s no great national security problem with it”, he said. It’s still unclear what “equipment” he means.
The whole purpose of blacklisting the company in the first place was to curb what the administration (loudly and persistently) claimed was a grave threat to national security. Additionally, the US has spent the better part of two months attempting to convince other nations that the company’s technology is dangerous, so it’s going to be difficult to explain the apparent U-turn without conceding that either i) the national security threat was overblown, ii) Trump cares more about a deal than national security or iii) both.
Huawei’s official, verified Twitter account got in on the action. “U-turn?”, the account asked, minutes after Trump spoke.
“ON OR OFF?”, the company went on to wonder, quoting Trump when the president said “We are talking about that, we have a meeting on that tomorrow or Tuesday”, in response to a reporter who asked him to clarify whether Huawei will in fact be removed from the entity list.
“Looks like things are not confirmed just yet”, Huawei said.
Later, Trump took to Twitter and offered a bit more clarity – sort of. “At the request of our High Tech companies, and President Xi, I agreed to allow Chinese company Huawei to buy product from them which will not impact our National Security”, he said.
The addition of Huawei to the list was described as a “nuclear bomb” and has been at the center of the Sino-US dispute since. Of course, this goes back to the arrest of CFO Meng Wanzhou, and further than that, if you want to trace the history of US concerns about Chinese tech.
Reports that US firms such as Micron and Intel are circumventing the ban may have played into Trump’s decision. Initially, it seemed like news that some US companies have figured out a way to keep shipping products to Huawei would harden the administration’s resolve, but it’s possible Trump thought it too risky to instruct Wilbur Ross to close the loophole. (One former Commerce official says “loophole” isn’t an accurate characterization.)
It’s also possible Trump is now coming to terms with the fact that if the Huawei ban isn’t lifted, Beijing will go after US companies aggressively. FedEx was a warning shot in that regard. The company is now suing the Commerce department in connection with the Huawei dispute, an embarrassing turn of events, especially considering Huawei is suing the department too.
Marco Rubio is furious. “If President Trump has agreed to reverse recent sanctions against Huawei he has made a catastrophic mistake”, Rubio said Saturday. “It will destroy the credibility of his administration’s warnings about the threat posed by the company [and] no one will ever again take them seriously.”
He went further. “If President Trump has in fact bargained away the recent restrictions on Huawei, then we will have to get those restrictions put back in place through legislation and it will pass with a large veto proof majority”, he insisted.
Chuck Schumer isn’t amused either. “Huawei is one of few potent levers we have to make China play fair on trade”, he said. “If President Trump backs off, as it appears he is doing, it will dramatically undercut our ability to change China’s unfair trade practices.”
Kyle Bass agrees. “Schumer hits the nail on the head here. Get ready for some 4th of July fireworks on the new Huawei story this week”, he tweeted, teasing what he says is a forthcoming bombshell that “will show what deep investigative reporting can unearth”.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Huawei hasn’t been wholly forthcoming about its relationship with the PLA.
For the second time in two hours, Bass called Huawei “the modern day Trojan Horse”. “Trump might be rolling it into our gates celebrating his ‘win'”, Bass warned.