The dramatic standoff over the arrest of a Chinese tech executive on charges related to Iran-
sanctions violations deepened Tuesday, when a bail hearing in the case was overshadowed by news of the arrest of a former Canadian diplomat in China — and unexpected comments from President Trump.
Asked in an interview with Reuters whether he would intervene in the Justice Department case against Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, Trump suggested that he was willing to do so.
“Whatever’s good for this country, I would do,” he told the news agency. “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.”
The comment, starkly at odds with earlier remarks from U.S. officials, came shortly after Meng, the chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies, was granted bail as she awaits a hearing on extradition to the United States.
Meanwhile, Canadian authorities confirmed that Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat and an analyst for the International Crisis Group, has been detained in China.
It was unclear Tuesday whether Kovrig’s case was related to China’s threats that there will be “severe consequences” for Canada if Meng is not released. But the detention of a Canadian citizen in China is sure to complicate an already complex standoff involving Beijing, Washington and Ottawa.
Meng, 46, was arrested Dec. 1 while in transit at Vancouver’s airport — the same day that Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Argentina to seek a truce in the U.S.-China trade dispute.
Although the timing appears to be a coincidence — the warrant for Meng’s arrest was dated Aug. 22 — China sees the case as a bid to secure leverage in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and has called for Meng’s immediate release.
An intervention by Trump would seem to confirm China’s suspicion that this is not a legal proceeding but a political negotiation, potentially changing the terms of the conflict.
William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration, said the president’s statement “makes a mockery of the principle of rule of law and makes us no better than the Chinese.” If Trump wants to intervene in the case as a trade negotiation tactic, Reinsch said, “he should keep his mouth shut about it until Xi comes to him and asks for help.”
Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed a similar view: “I do think it’s important for the president to weigh his options, though it would be better to do it quietly rather than publicly.”
Jeff Moon, who negotiated trade deals with China for the Obama administration, said Trump needs to handle the Huawei case purely as a law enforcement matter. “Any intervention or linkage with other issues will complicate the bilateral relationship unnecessarily and perhaps prevent resolution of the trade war,” Moon said.
Since Meng was taken into custody, the United States has said little about the arrest. U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft on Tuesday denied that the case was political. “This is part of our judicial process,” she told reporters in Ottawa.
When pressed by reporters, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, have insisted that Meng’s arrest was a legal, not a political, move.
“What is important for us to communicate to China and to Canadians is that the detention of Ms. Meng is not a political judgment by Canada,” Freeland said at an event in Toronto on Tuesday. “This is about Canada abiding by an extradition treaty with no political interference at all. We believe very strongly in following our treaty commitments and in not interfering politically.”
Though Huawei has global reach, its expansion has long been thwarted by U.S. concerns that it is too close to the Chinese government and could constitute a threat to U.S. national security.
Huawei and China deny these claims and counter that U.S. security claims are an effort to hurt Huawei’s business.
In a statement issued following the bail decision Tuesday, Huawei said: “We have every confidence that the Canadian and U.S. legal systems will reach a just conclusion in the following proceedings. As we have stressed all along, Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries and regions where we operate, including export control and sanction laws of the U.N., U.S., and EU. We look forward to a timely resolution of this matter.”
On Friday, before a packed courtroom in Vancouver, prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley argued that Meng committed fraud in 2013 by telling financial institutions that Huawei had no connection to a Hong Kong-based company, Skycom, which was reportedly selling U.S. goods to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Meng’s lawyer said she will deny the charge.
In an affidavit released Sunday, Meng made her case for release.
“My father founded Huawei and I would never do anything that would cause the company reputational damage,” she said. “I wish to remain in Vancouver to contest my extradition, and I will contest the allegations at trial in the U.S. if I am ultimately surrendered.”
Over two more days of deliberation, Meng’s team argued that she should be granted bail on grounds that she is in poor health and has close ties to Vancouver, where she owns two homes and is a frequent visitor.
Her lawyer initially said that her husband, a Chinese national who spends time in Vancouver, could serve as her guarantor — a suggestion the judge and prosecutors did not appear to like.
On Tuesday, her team suggested four other Vancouver residents willing to vouch for her — her Vancouver real estate agent, an insurance agent who once worked with her at Huawei, a woman whose husband once worked at Huawei and a neighbor. All agreed to put up their homes or cash as surety against her fleeing.
The conditions of her bail stipulate that she must live at one of her Vancouver residences, obey a curfew and travel only within a designated part of the city.
Amanda Coletta in Toronto and David Lynch in Washington contributed to this report.