(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s surprise Sunday directive to his Commerce Department to back off an earlier decision and help Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp. was the opposite of what two of his cabinet secretaries urged in 2016 when they were members of Congress.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who represented districts in Kansas and Montana, respectively, had asked senior Obama administration officials in a 2016 letter to reconsider their decision at the time to relieve ZTE of sanctions for selling technological goods to Iran.
“We are concerned that if ZTE is not ultimately punished for its reported misconduct, American export control laws and international efforts to promote human rights in Iran will be weakened,” according to the letter, which was signed by Pompeo, Zinke and 21 other Republican House members.
Spokesmen for Zinke and Pompeo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside normal business hours.
The Commerce Department in April cut off the massive Chinese telecom equipment maker from its U.S. suppliers after determining that the company flouted a 2017 agreement resolving allegations it illegally shipped telecommunications equipment to Iran and North Korea. The punishment resulted in ZTE suspending all major operations, according to a May 10 statement.
Trump said in a tweet Sunday morning that he’s working with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and has “instructed” his Commerce Department to get ZTE back in business because “too many jobs in China lost.”
ZTE has been in the cross hairs of federal export control authorities for years. In 2016 the Obama administration announced that it was punishing the company for its alleged sanctions violations by restricting the sale of key U.S. exports to ZTE, but weeks later it suspended the punishment after the telecom equipment maker agreed to work with U.S. authorities.
That temporary reprieve prompted the lawmakers, including Pompeo and Zinke, to send a letter to the heads of the Commerce, Treasury and State departments asking them to reconsider their decision.
“If evidence currently exists to implicate ZTE, we believe it is appropriate for Commerce to take immediate action,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was addressed to secretaries of President Barack Obama’s Treasury, Commerce and State departments.
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