President Trump shrinks from another fight with China

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Donald Trump

Strange as it sounded, Donald Trump’s reversal on punishing a Chinese telecommunications giant fits his pattern: Facing powerful adversaries, the tough-talking president usually shrinks from a fight.

Republicans and Democrats alike slammed Trump’s sudden declaration that stiff U.S. sanctions for Shenzhen-based ZTE meant “too many jobs in China lost.” Not only had ZTE defied strictures against commerce with Iran and North Korea, U.S. intelligence officials warned that its devices could be instruments of Chinese espionage.

But the logic of Trump’s action lay, at least in part, in the pushback he faced. The administration team he recently sent to Beijing to demand trade concessions from China came back empty. China, from which Trump simultaneously seeks help in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, demanded that he back off ZTE.

So Trump backed off – just as he did upon taking office with his stern promises to declare the world’s second-largest economy a “currency manipulator.”

Not just China

He has done the same in soft responses to Russia’s assassination of journalists and dissidents. With the words, “You think our country’s so innocent,” the president has even shrunk from claiming the moral high ground for America.

“For all his bluster, one of the surprising takeaways from Trump’s 16 months as president is how cowed he often is by the strong men of international politics,” said Nicholas Burns, a U.S. diplomat under presidents of both parties and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Trump has followed a similar pattern on domestic issues.

During the 2016 campaign, he vowed to working-class supporters he would cut prescription drug prices by making pharmaceutical firms negotiate with Medicare. The powerful drug industry loathes the idea.

When he unveiled his plan for cutting drug prices last week, Trump had dropped it.

Candidate Trump promised to confront Wall Street in his tax plan by eliminating a big loophole for hedge fund managers. His aides promised wealthy Americans would get no tax cut at all.

The “carried interest” loophole was preserved. The wealthy got the biggest tax cuts of all.

As president, following the Parkland school massacre, Trump mocked Congress as too scared of the National Rifle Association to enact new gun restrictions. He cast himself as tougher.

After the NRA resisted, Trump backed off.

Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images
The ZTE logo is seen on an office building in Shanghai on May 3, 2018.

The president has followed through on tough rhetoric with less-powerful constituencies. Most conspicuously, his administration has adopted a more aggressive approach to border enforcement and deportation of illegal immigrants.

Trump announced the end of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. After insisting he would protect current “Dreamers,” the president dropped the effort in the face of opposition from GOP congressional leaders.

This pattern does not mean the administration’s initial approach to ZTE was right, or that Trump’s new one is wrong. Some diplomats and trade specialists believe ZTE, and thus American firms such as Qualcomm in its supply chain, were punished too severely.

“President Trump in my view was correct to revisit the decision,” said Carla Hills, a former U.S. trade representative. “ZTE should, and likely will face record penalties. But hopefully those penalties will not have a devastating impact on innocent parties — namely U.S. companies and U.S. workers.”

Possible motives that hit close to home

On China and Russia, Trump may also have motives closer to home.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is probing whether financial and political ties by Trump and his campaign played a role in Moscow’s 2016 interference on his behalf. Among other leads, investigators are examining whether influential Russians used the NRA as a conduit for assisting Trump.

The Trump organization is now part of an Indonesian development project benefiting from $500 million in Chinese government financing. A White House spokesman on Monday declined to comment on the project on grounds that the president’s family business is “a private organization.”

“Why,” Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon asked on Twitter, is Trump “personally protecting a Chinese tech company guilty of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran? Maybe this.”

Correction: An earlier version misstated Nicholas Burns’ position at the Kennedy School. He is a professor.

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