Trump’s Deplorable Intervention Over Huawei

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With his comments on the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, an executive at the Chinese electronics giant Huawei Technologies Co., President Trump has threatened to transform a misguided trade war with China into something far more dangerous. His intervention has turned a case that had nothing to do with disputes over trade into an assault on the rule of law.

Earlier this month, at the request of American prosecutors, Canadian authorities arrested Meng as part of a probe into sanctions violations. Trump then volunteered that he might get involved — if the price was right. “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,” he said.

This is deplorable. Politicizing Meng’s arrest is an affront to basic civic values. It endangers Americans doing business in China. It makes a mockery of broader U.S. sanctions policy, which is apparently now up for deal-making. It’s an affront to Canada, which was trying to do the right thing and is seeing its citizens detained for its trouble.

Above all, it undermines the rule of law. Trump’s other deal-making efforts — from fiddling with Nafta to negotiating with North Korea — have been largely counterproductive, but they’re at least a legitimate exercise of presidential power. Using Meng’s arrest as a bargaining chip is not. It’s almost as though the president thinks he is taking a hostage.

This prosecution was, at the outset, a proper endeavor. A years-long probe by federal authorities, starting under President Obama, found evidence that Huawei had induced several banks to unknowingly violate sanctions by moving money to a subsidiary that was doing business in Iran. Meng, prosecutors say, helped defraud banks into clearing more than $100 million in sanctioned transactions.

These are serious charges, substantiated in some detail. If they’re proven, Meng could face a significant prison term. Other executives could follow. Huawei itself — which had pledged quite specifically to abide by these sanctions — could be facing not just legal jeopardy but a serious threat to its business. U.S.-China relations, already badly strained, could be further harmed.

Given these stakes, Meng’s prosecution was always going to be sensitive. But Trump has compounded the risks enormously. At the same time, he has delegitimized his own federal prosecutors, validated China’s disdain for the American justice system, and forfeited what moral authority his administration had in criticizing politicized trials elsewhere.

By the way, this isn’t the first time. In May, after the U.S. penalized ZTE Corp. for brazenly violating sanctions and lying about it to investigators, Trump intervened to bail the company out. His decision was, he said, “reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”

Limiting the damage from this new intervention won’t be easy. Federal prosecutors will have to strive to demonstrate their independence from the White House in pursuing Meng’s case. The courts must ensure that she’s tried fairly and transparently. In the future Trump should try, against the odds, to exercise better judgement.

As president, he’s free to pursue trade deals. He isn’t free to offer the U.S. system of justice as part of the bargain.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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