During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Bill Evanina — President Trump’s nominee to head the newly created National Counterintelligence and Security Center — acknowledged that the Chinese telecom company Trump tweeted on behalf of on Sunday, ZTE, represents a national security threat.
Evanina was responding to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) about a non-classified, bipartisan House Intelligence Committee report from 2012 about Chinese telecom companies, including ZTE. The company announced it was shutting down its smartphone business earlier this month after the Commerce Department punished it for repeatedly violating U.S. sanctions by selling products with American-made components to Iran and North Korea.
“The report concluded that the risks associated with ZTE’s provision of equipment to U.S. critical infrastructure could undermine American national security interests,” Wyden said. “Do you agree with that bipartisan support?”
“Senator Wyden, I do,” Evanina replied.
“They recommended that the United States should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by ZTE. Do you agree with that?” Wyden followed up.
“Yes,” Evanina said.
Wyden tried to get Evanina to comment on Trump’s tweet, but he declined. Later, however, Evanina told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) he wouldn’t use a ZTE phone and would recommend that anyone in “any sort of position that is sensitive” avoid using them as well.
On Sunday, Trump posted an unusual tweet stating that “President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
During the White House press briefing on Monday, deputy press secretary Raj Shah confirmed that the Commerce Department had been directed by Trump “to look into the matter” of helping ZTE, but wasn’t able to explain why beyond noting “the issue has been raised at many levels by the Chinese government with various levels of our administration.”
Shortly after the briefing ending, Trump posted a tweet noting that ZTE “buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies” and that his concern about the company “is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 14, 2018
What Trump did not mention, however, is that two days before his first tweet about ZTE, “a state-owned Chinese construction company called the Metallurgical Corporation of China announced it would float a $500 million loan to Indonesian developers to facilitate the construction of a vast ‘integrated lifestyle resort’ called MNC Lido City that includes Trump-branded hotels, residences, and a golf course,” as Vox puts it.
During Monday’s briefing, Shah could not explain how the Trump Organization’s involvement in a foreign project partly financed by the Chinese government adheres to the Constitution’s emoluments clause and Trump’s personal promise not to pursue new foreign business deals while he’s president.
“I’ll have to refer you to the Trump Organization,” Shah told a reporter who asked about the propriety of the deal.
While it’s unclear what link, if any, exists between the Chinese financing of a Trump-linked project and Trump’s sudden desire to help a large Chinese company, the president’s tweets are particularly odd given Trump’s repeated attacks on China during his campaign, saying things like, “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” and his repeated vows to put “America first.”