WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s course reversal Saturday on banning U.S. companies from supplying software and components to Huawei has managed to do what few other Trump policies have. It’s outraging Republicans.
Trump announced the shift after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Japan as part of an agreement to restart trade negotiations between the nations. In exchange, China agreed to buy more U.S. farm products, The Washington Post’s David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report.
The about-face prompted a quick rebuke from Republicans, with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a longtime China hawk, threatening to reinstate the bans with legislation he said could pass with a veto-proof majority.
The Commerce Department imposed those restrictions in May because of the national security risk that the Chinese telecom might help Beijing spy on U.S. networks. The decision came the same day Trump issued an executive order banning Huawei from building the next-generation U.S. 5G wireless networks.
If the administration shifts course and treats the commerce restrictions as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, it will seriously damage U.S. credibility the next time it warns of a national security threat, Rubio warned.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, joined Rubio, declaring that restrictions on Huawei should be “non-negotiable” and calling the company “a national security threat to the U.S. and our allies.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said the United States should do less business with Huawei, not more, and said it’s “time to stop them in their tracks.”
Retired Gen. Rob Spalding, who worked on 5G issues for the Trump administration in the buildup to the Huawei ban, declared that “Huawei is not a trade issue. It is an existential issue for democracy not just for the US, but everywhere.”
By Sunday, the administration was trying to temper Republicans’ concerns. Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, went on the Sunday morning shows promising the shift would apply only to “general merchandise,” such as computer chips and software that are also available from non-American suppliers.
It would not apply to software and components U.S. officials have specific national security concerns about, Kudlow said.
“I hope that when President Trump comes back that he and others of us will be able to persuade Senator Rubio that there will be no national security violations,” Kudlow said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
On Fox News Sunday, he promised the shift would not be a “general amnesty.”
Kudlow suggested, however, the president might pull back some other Huawei restrictions after all other issues are resolved in trade negotiations.
Huawei has steadfastly denied that it assists Chinese government spying and said it would refuse to do so if asked.
The ban that Trump plans to roll back is one of the most aggressive actions the U.S. government has taken against Huawei — and the least popular among cyber pros and industry.
In early June, an ongoing, informal Washington Post survey of more than 100 cybersecurity experts from government, academia and the private sector about the ban, 61 percent said it was a bad idea. They worried it would hurt U.S. tech companies supplying Huawei more than it hurt Huawei. They also fretted the ban would prompt an escalating tit-for-tat conflict that might result in more of the world using less digitally secure Chinese products rather than more secure American ones.
Many of the same experts said that banning Huawei from U.S. 5G networks — and a diplomatic campaign urging U.S. allies to do the same — was far more important.
But imposing the ban and then paring it back might be even worse, some experts suggested this weekend, because it signals that U.S. officials were being disingenuous when they warned of the dangers of Huawei spying. And that signal could be picked up by allies that are considering whether to buy Huawei gear for their 5G networks.
“When you tell the world one day Huawei is a security threat and then reverse that argument the next day, you undermine the veracity of the initial security claim, and make it much harder for anyone to believe your security concern in the future,” Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted.
Michael Wessel, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, tweeted that it seemed Trump was “willing to accept a fistful of dollars while trading away our security.”
Even some lawmakers who were quiet about the security implications of the drawback criticized Trump for bargaining away some Huawei restrictions before getting more concessions from China on trade.
“Huawei is one of few potent levers we have to make China play fair on trade,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, tweeted.
“Why is @POTUS surrendering one of the United States’ key pieces of leverage before beginning new trade negotiations with China?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, a member of the Armed Services Committee, asked in a tweet.