IN APRIL 2018, the Trump administration banned Chinese telecom equipment giant ZTE from buying American-made parts, threatening to cripple the company’s worldwide operations. An opening salvo in Trump’s trade war with China, the measure was extreme. But ZTE had violated export controls by selling technology to Iran and North Korea, then breached an agreement with the Commerce Department in which it had pledged to stop. Moreover, ZTE makes technology that can be used for surveillance and has ties to the Chinese military.
Just one month later, however, President Donald Trump unexpectedly tweeted that he might be open to a deal that would free ZTE from the Commerce Department penalty, known as a denial order. “Too many jobs in China lost,” he wrote. Republican lawmakers, Washington analysts, and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton were aghast. Bolton later called the sudden reversal “policy by personal whim and impulse.” But the White House moved forward anyway. By early June, Commerce and ZTE had reached a preliminary deal. In July, the Commerce Department lifted the ban.