President Trump angered senior officials in his Justice Department and Democratic lawmakers this week when he told Reuters reporters that he wouldn't hesitate to intervene in the prosecution of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou - who is at the beginning of what's expected to be a lengthy extradition process - if it would improve the president's chances of striking a trade deal with China. His comments elicited indignant replies about Trump turning what should be a purely criminal proceeding into a political bargaining chip.
And in a sign of just how badly Trump upset the federal law enforcement community with his comments, members of the "deep state" community of federal intelligence and law enforcement agents and president Trump's advisors are engaging in the time-tested practice of trying to walk back controversial comments made by the president by leaking a story to WSJ claiming that the president has been warned that any intervention in the Huawei case would "break with longstanding tradition" and that Meng's arrest was "out of his hands."
Despite President Trump’s statement that he might intervene in a criminal case against the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co., such a move would break from longstanding tradition and advisers have warned him that his options are limited, according to people familiar with the matter.
When news broke last week of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, threatening the president’s trade talks with China, he asked for options, according to one person, and advisers told him the arrest and potential prosecution of Ms. Meng was essentially out of his hands.
The arrest was a Justice Department matter, they said, and the White House should stay out of it for now, this person said. There are no immediate plans to intervene in the matter, officials added.
The timing of this leak is incredibly inconvenient (it follows two possible trade-war victories: China restarting purchases of US soybeans and considering the scrapping of its "Made in China" 2025 plan"). Furthermore, it risks harming the fragile market rally as WSJ's sources insinuated that Trump's comment about intervening in May's detention was purely intended to prop up stocks.
The matter arose when Mr. Trump returned to Washington last week optimistic that his trade talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping had made headway. But stocks didn’t respond as well as he had expected, and on Tuesday Mr. Trump told Reuters he would be willing to intervene in the case against Ms. Meng if it meant securing a strong agreement.
"If I think it’s good for the country, 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," Mr. Trump said.
"It’s also possible it will be a part of the negotiations," he added.
And while the story goes on to quote several experts who seemed to suggest that Trump wouldn't dare interfere with the DOJ (because his administration has always shown such unshakable respect for precedent), it also points out that - constitutionally speaking - there's nothing stopping Trump from absolving Meng.
Former Justice Department officials said that while Mr. Trump’s intervention in the Meng case would be a departure from the norms against White House involvement in criminal cases, there is nothing in the Constitution that bars it. Such actions are more common - though still unusual - if the action is framed as a national-security matter.
While the circumstances were different, President Obama pushed the Justice Department to drop cases against several alleged Iran-sanctions violators while negotiating a plan for that country to curb its nuclear program.
"In this trade negotiation, the economic and national-security concerns are increasingly indistinguishable, as is the case with so much of what the U.S. and China are in conflict over at the moment," said Robert D. Williams, executive director of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
It's hardly surprising that "deep state" figures would try to undermine Trump's trade talks. But, for now, all they can do is orchestrate damaging leaks. They don't have the authority to stop Trump from using Meng as a bargaining chip - if that's what the president believes is in the best interest of the nation.