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Trump Administration Tries to Reassure Key Senators About ZTE Enforcement

Cornyn said administration is making clear national security and trade are in separate buckets

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he will be counting votes on the criminal justice bill this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he will be counting votes on the criminal justice bill this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration is trying to reassure Senate Republicans that it won’t go light on sanctions enforcement against Chinese communications equipment firm ZTE.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross huddled with a group of key GOP senators Wednesday evening.

The meeting was organized through Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

“They did make clear that this was primarily, almost entirely an enforcement action under the auspcices of Commerce,” the Texas Republican said after the meeting. Cornyn said he was reassured by what the Trump cabinet officials said.

“I think the big concern was whether ZTE was being treated as a national security matter or just strictly as a trade issue that was kind of fungible in these trade agreements,” Cornyn said. “They assured us that the lanes were separate.”

Cornyn said that while the meeting with Mnuchin and Ross did not include a discussion about congressional action, the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill being considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee is the vehicle for a bipartisan measure designed to strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) process.

That bill, which the Banking Committee reported on Tuesday, included amendment language from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would restrict the Commerce Department’s ability to ease penalities against Chinese communications companies for offenses like those committed by ZTE.

“I expect it to b part of the NDAA,” Cornyn said. “That will be added to the defense authorization bill.”

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who was also among the attendees of the Wednesday meeting, said he was taking a wait and see approach to the Trump administration’s actions on ZTE, though he remained skeptical.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I know what I think they should do, and that is leave it in place the way it is right now,” Rubio said.

Rubio also continued to anticipate legislative action.

“I think they would prefer us not to act on it, but I think Congress is going to do what it needs to do,” Rubio said. “This is a national security issue.

Senators were trying to understand the Trump administration’s decision-making process with respect to China and ZTE, according to Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker. It was clear after the meeting that ZTE still faces a real threat of enforcement action for significant sanctions violations.

Other participants included Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, along with Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina.

The meeting began in Cornyn’s leadership office suite, but according to Corker, the administration officials suggested that some questions needed to be answered in a secure area. So the meeting moved downstairs to a Senate-controlled secure facility in the Capitol Visitor Center.

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