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Trump Takes his Foot off Huawei’s Neck — and Catches Hell for it

Trump Takes his Foot off Huawei’s Neck — and Catches Hell for it

As US-China trade talks sputtered back in May, the Trump administration banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from acquiring US technology. The move, which threatened to cripple the company and crater China's plans to lead the world in next-generation 5G network technology, prompted high-fives from US national security hawks, who view Huawei, and China more broadly, as security threats — "strategic competitors," even.


The question since then has been whether President Donald Trump would stay tough on Huawei or offer a lighter touch as a bargaining chip in broader trade talks with Beijing. Over the weekend, he moved in the latter direction, announcing that US companies would be allowed to resume some limited sales of goods to Huawei as part of a compromise with China's President Xi Jinping to restart negotiations. It was a classic Trump-as-dealmaker move, but it didn't take long for the problems with this strategy to become apparent:

The US is sending mixed messages. For months, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other US officials have been pressuring allies not to use Huawei gear in their next-generation mobile networks, because of the national security risk that China could use that technology to snoop. But using the company as a bargaining chip in pursuit of a trade deal undermines the credibility of that argument. Meanwhile, if it's true, as the White House says, that Trump plans to allow sales only of "general merchandise" that Huawei could buy from just about anyone, then that's not a great deal for Xi: Huawei will struggle to compete in the global market without those hard-to-make US parts.

Trump isn't the only one with the power to crush Huawei. If he goes too easy on the company in pursuit of a trade deal, Congress might take the decision about Huawei's future out of his hands. The Huawei tech ban is one of the few things that has strong bipartisan support in Congress. Senator Marco Rubio, a leading Huawei hawk, has already threatened to pass a bill that would make the ban permanent with a "veto-proof majority."

Bottom line: Huawei can be a bargaining chip in the US-China trade war, or it can be a truly existential threat to the national security of the US and its allies. But it can't be both. By trying to have his Huawei and eat it too, Trump risks confusing industry, tanking the credibility of his administration, and alienating US allies and adversaries alike.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

With the transition of power formally beginning now, what can we expect between now and inauguration day?

Well, there's a couple of important deadlines between now and Inauguration Day. The first is the December 14th meeting of the Electoral College, which will make the state certifications official and will make Joe Biden officially president-elect in the eyes of the US government. Another really important date is going to be January 5th, which is when Georgia has its runoff for the two Senate seats that will determine majority control in the Senate. If the Republicans win one of those seats, they'll maintain their majority, although very slim. If the Democrats win both of the seats, they'll have a 50/50 Senate with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote and slightly more ability to enact Joe Biden's agenda next year. Also, between now and Inauguration Day, we're going to see Joe Biden announce his cabinet and senior staff. Most of whom will probably get confirmed fairly easily early, earlier ... Excuse me, later in January or early in February. And of course, we're going to see what President Trump is going to do next. I think that it's still a little bit up in the air what his post-presidency plans are. He has yet to concede the election. So, anything is possible from him, including a lot of new executive orders that could try to box Biden in and limit his options when it comes to economic policy, foreign policy, and social policy.

What can we expect out of the Biden administration's first 100 days?

Well, the biggest priority of the Biden administration first is going to be to confirm all of their cabinet appointees, and that should be pretty easy at the cabinet head level for the most part, even with a Republican controlled Senate. It's going to be a little more difficult once you get below the cabinet head, because then you're going to start to see some more ideological tests and some more policy concerns be flushed out by Republicans in the Senate. The second thing you're going to see is Biden start to undo as much of the Trump legacy as he can, and his primary vehicle for doing this is going to be executive orders, which is a lot of what president Trump used in order to enact policy. Expect Biden to reenter the Paris Climate Accord on day one and expect him to start undoing things like Trump's immigration orders and perhaps reversing some of his decisions on trade. Yet to be determined is if Congress is going to have fully funded the government for the entire year in December in the lame-duck session, and if they haven't, Biden's going to have to work out a deal probably in March or so to do that.

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