President Trump Puts 'America First' On Hold To Save Chinese Jobs : The Two-Way Trump says he is working with Chinese President Xi Jinping to get cellphone-maker ZTE "back in business" after it was punished for selling U.S. technology to Iran and then violated a settlement.

President Trump Puts 'America First' On Hold To Save Chinese Jobs

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tough economic sanctions by the Trump administration nearly put a Chinese cellphone maker out of business. Now it appears the White House is backing down. President Trump has told his commerce secretary to find another way to deal with China's ZTE Corporation - one that won't cost the jobs of some 70,000 Chinese workers.

This comes as the administration holds wide-ranging trade talks with China, and it has drawn criticism from some members of Congress. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House to discuss this. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people were surprised when President Trump made this call yesterday for a different approach to ZTE. Put this move into context for us.

HORSLEY: ZTE has been a target of U.S. regulators for some time now, initially for skirting international sanctions and selling smartphone technology to rogue countries like North Korea and Iran. The Commerce Department had already levied fines for that.

And then last month, regulators went further and ordered U.S. suppliers like Qualcomm to stop doing business with ZTE. Without those vital American components, the company was effectively shut down. That's when the president threw ZTE this surprising lifeline.

After speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said he and Xi were working together to save ZTE, and he told the Commerce Department to get it done. This afternoon, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters at the National Press Club he is looking at how he might do that.

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WILBUR ROSS: ZTE did do some inappropriate things. They've admitted to that. The question is, are there alternative remedies to the one that we had originally put forward? And that's the area we will be exploring very, very promptly.

HORSLEY: Now, Ari, it's not clear what those alternative remedies might look like. The White House did come out with a statement last night saying Ross would exercise his independent judgment, but it certainly sounds as if the commerce secretary has his marching orders.

SHAPIRO: Pulling back the camera a bit, there's a lot going on between the U.S. and China. Besides these trade talks, there's the issue that the U.S. needs Beijing's help to deal with North Korea. How does all of this affect what's happening here with this telecom company?

HORSLEY: That's right. The White House conceded this is all part of the important backdrop. Here is White House spokesman Raj Shah this afternoon.

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RAJ SHAH: It's part of the U.S. relationship with China, which is complex. It has economic factors. It has national security factors. This is just one of many factors.

HORSLEY: And as you mentioned, it's a sensitive time. You know, the U.S. and China have threatened each other with tens of billions of dollars in tariffs. China's top economic official - he's going to be in Washington later this week for trade talks. And what's more, China's a big player in the pressure campaign against North Korea in advance of Trump's upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un.

SHAPIRO: And as we mentioned, some members of Congress are not happy with this move by the president. They think President Trump is letting ZTE off the hook too easily. Tell us more about what they're saying.

HORSLEY: And that includes some of the president's fellow Republicans. You know, ZTE's been under the microscope for a long time, not only for selling to rogue countries, but also as a potential cyberthreat here at home.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted the U.S. is, quote, "crazy" to allow this company to operate here in the U.S. without tighter restrictions. And Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer also weighed in, saying the president might be going soft on China.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: And my worry after this ZTE thing is China will offer us some small-term palliative. They'll say, OK, we'll buy some of your products, and we won't be tough on them stealing intellectual property, on them insisting that we make our goods in China to sell them there instead of allowing us to sell goods, as they are allowed to sell their goods here in America.

HORSLEY: And, in fact, Trump tweeted this afternoon part of his thinking in helping ZTE is the large volume of components the company buys from U.S. suppliers.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley speaking with us from the White House. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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