President Donald Trump’s suggestion that he might use an arrested Chinese tech executive as a bargaining chip in trade talks with Beijing drew rebukes for setting a “terrible precedent” crossing the red line that separates American politics from the rule of law.
The remark triggered pushback from law enforcement officials, criticism from lawmakers and concern from legal and business analysts who said it’s not only a weak bargaining move that might create more friction with allies, but it represents a “poisonous” precedent that could eventually undermine the safety of Americans overseas.
“The US, like Canada, we’re both rule of law countries based on a constitution, legal principles, rule of law,” said William Reinsch, the Scholl chair for international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Our history is that things like this proceed through the criminal justice system and justice is blind. Trump is basically saying he might interfere with this process, which is a terrible precedent.”
In an interview with Reuters Tuesday, Trump said he would intervene in the case against Meng Wanzhou if it proved beneficial in securing a trade deal that has splintered relations between the two countries in recent months.
The CFO of Chinese tech giant Huawei was arrested December 1 in Vancouver for violating US sanctions on Iran – the same night Trump was dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Argentina.
‘I would certainly intervene’
“Whatever’s good for this country, I would do,” Trump told Reuters. “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made – which is a very important thing – what’s good for national security, I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”
While Trump’s assertion to Reuters violates a basic American tenet, Reinsch notes that, “on the other hand, this is exactly the kind of thing China understands … because China isn’t a rule of law country and that’s what they would do.”
There are also the unintended consequences to worry about, said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst and former global leader of the anti-money laundering/terrorist financing and economic and trade sanctions practice at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in Washington.
“The danger is the unintended consequence of an American citizen abroad being arrested and held hostage to the arresting state’s economic, trade desires,” Zeldin told CNN. “But now we’ve set the appropriateness of Americans abroad being held hostage to trade deals. There’s too much danger in that,” Zeldin added. “If I was counseling the President I would say those two things should not be coupled.”
If Trump were able to follow through on his impulse, it could also create more friction with Canada, Reinsch said. “It seems to me to be an odd thing to say at this point in the process,” he said. “She’s not in US jurisdiction. She’s in Canadian jurisdiction. Intervening in the process means he would talk to [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, who has said more than once the normal judicial process will go ahead. It just creates another point of friction with Canada.”
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Wednesday that she has spoken with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Meng’s case. When asked about Trump’s comments, Freeland said Canada is not responsible for the behavior of other countries. “Canada will very faithfully follow the rule of law,” she said.
‘Let them grovel’
While Reinsch is adamant that Trump’s suggestion is not “the way we should be behaving,” he said that if Trump went ahead, it would be “a tactical mistake.”
“If you’re going to do it, the way to do it is make the Chinese come to us,” Reinsch said. “Let them grovel for a bit and then respond. You don’t give them what they want up front. What do we get if he does that? Nothing.”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, top national security, counterintelligence and cybersecurity officials testifying on Chinese espionage threats also pushed back on Trump’s comments.
“What I do, what we do at the Justice Department, is law enforcement. We don’t do trade,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the department’s top national security official, said at when asked about the remarks.
“We follow the facts and we vindicate violations of US law. That’s what we’re doing when we bring those cases, and I think it’s very important for other countries to understand that we are not a tool of trade when we bring the cases,” he added.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who had asked the officials for their take on the President’s comments, said he felt “the danger of the President’s statement is that it makes it look like law enforcement is a tool of either trade or political or diplomatic ends of this country.”
‘Not in this one’
“That may be true in other countries,” Blumenthal said, “but not in this one.” The President’s remark was “extremely disturbing to me,” he said.
“It seems to me,” the senator added, “that the President does a disservice to the work as well as the image of our nation in terms of law enforcement.”
Demers told the committee that if Meng is extradited from Canada, as the US has requested, “our criminal case will continue,” he said. He declined to comment further on the case.
Bill Priestap, the FBI assistant director in charge of the counterintelligence division, simply said the FBI would simply follow the motto “do your job.”
“From the FBI’s end, we’re going to continue to do our job,” he said.
Meng was arrested earlier this month at an airport in Vancouver, Canada, at the request of the US government, authorities have said.
The Chinese executive is accused of helping Huawei get around US sanctions on Iran by telling financial institutions such as HSBC that a Huawei subsidiary, Skycom, was a separate and unaffiliated company.
On Tuesday, Meng stepped out of detention after 10 days behind bars when a judge in Canada approved her release on $10 million Canadian bail ($7.5 million US).
Officials in China, where the judicial system is subordinate to the Communist Party, will have a hard time believing Meng’s arrest was due to the wheels of justice turning at their own pace, Reinsch said.
“They’ll believe it has nothing do with a judge in” New York who issued the warrant for her arrest in August, he said.
Instead, said Reinsch, a former president of the National Foreign Trade Council with long experience on US-China ties, the Chinese will see the arrest as “a plot to gain leverage in the [trade] negotiations, a plot to embarrass China, a plot to go after Huawei – any number of plots, pick your plot.”
That highlights another problem with Trump’s remarks, Reinsch said. “It will be seen as validation of what they already think, that we’re not a rule of law country,” he said. “That’s what makes it so poisonous, that they’ll think we’re just like them and we’re not.”
CORRECTION: The spelling of Meng Wanzhou’s name has been corrected.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report