The U.S. and China appear to be making progress toward a new trade deal, and doing so is essential to repair the damage that tariffs are inflicting on both economies. But one emerging risk is that President Trump will undermine U.S. law as part of the trade negotiations.
That risk was clear on Friday when reporters asked Mr. Trump about potentially dropping U.S. criminal charges against Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, as part of the trade deal. “We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks. And we’ll be talking to the U.S. Attorneys. We’ll be talking to the Attorney General,” Mr. Trump said. “But we’ll be making that decision. Right now it’s not something that we’re discussing.”
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Hold on there, sir. U.S. Attorneys aren’t trade negotiators. They’re prosecutors who enforce American law, and last month they unsealed an indictment charging Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. A separate indictment says Huawei employees stole technology from T-Mobile, the U.S. telecom firm. Suggesting that the U.S. could toss those indictments as part of a trade deal bolsters critics who say the indictments are political. Huawei and Ms. Meng deny wrongdoing.
If the charges are merely intended to pressure China on trade, then the Justice Department should drop them and apologize. But if the evidence is clear that Ms. Meng and Huawei violated U.S. law, and Mr. Trump lets them skate to increase soybean exports to China, Mr. Trump will undermine U.S. sanctions and confidence in American justice.
He’d also be doing a disservice to Canada, which has detained Ms. Meng at U.S. request pending extradition for trial in the U.S. China has responded by arresting two Canadians in China on obviously political charges. Why should Canada, or any other U.S. ally, endure this diplomatic risk if it concludes that such U.S. indictments are political and will be dropped on presidential whim?
Mr. Trump has already undermined U.S. sanctions policy by letting ZTE, another Chinese telecom firm, off easy. The Commerce Department last year barred U.S. firms from selling to ZTE after ZTE was found to be evading sanctions for a second time and then lying about it. Mr. Trump lifted the sale ban after a personal plea from Chinese President Xi Jinping. ZTE paid a $1.2 billion fine, but Mr. Trump’s intervention made American punishment seem as arbitrary as China’s.
President Trump’s comments on Huawei appear to reflect his view that all global politics is transactional, like a real-estate deal. He seems to think he and Mr. Xi can agree on terms and it will be done. That’s true for Mr. Xi, who runs an authoritarian system where the law is what he dictates. That isn’t true for the U.S., where no one is above the law.
Mr. Trump should be careful what he promises Mr. Xi on Huawei because he might not be able to deliver. He may find that new Attorney General Bill Barr doesn’t want to undermine his prosecutors by dropping charges, and that Congress could limit the President’s flexibility on sanctions. Mr. Trump should keep the Huawei prosecutions out of any China trade deal.