Chinese telecom giant ZTE is tapping a deeply connected Washington insider, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, as it tries to fend off ongoing concerns that it poses a threat to U.S. national security.
The company — the subject of a heated congressional battle earlier this year — has hired Lieberman (I-Conn.) to conduct an “independent” national security assessment of its products, the former senator told POLITICO.
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“There are obviously still concerns about the safety of their products or the extent to which their products could be used to compromise American security in any way or even individual security,” Lieberman said in an interview, adding that ZTE has “decided to really try to get ahead of those concerns and be in a position to answer them.”
U.S. officials have ramped up warnings that ZTE, which produces networking equipment as well as smartphones and tablet computers, provides opportunities for Chinese cyber espionage, given its ties to the Chinese government. Key lawmakers this summer sought to block the company from doing business in the U.S., but Congress later settled for a ban on ZTE entering into U.S. government contracts, following intervention by President Donald Trump.
Still, U.S. suspicion of ZTE and another Chinese telecom company, Huawei, is widespread. Canada arrested the chief financial officer of Huawei this month at the request of American officials who contend she violated U.S. sanctions against Iran. The action strained relations between the U.S. and China at a time when the countries are trying to de-escalate their trade war.
Lieberman is the third former U.S. lawmaker working on ZTE’s behalf in Washington. The company has retained the lobbying services of two other former lawmakers, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and former Nebraska Rep. Jon Christensen. Bryan Lanza, a former deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, also did work for ZTE earlier this year through Mercury Public Affairs.
ZTE paid the Washington, D.C., law firm Hogan Lovells nearly $2 million during the second and third quarters of the year.
Lieberman plans to register as a lobbyist for ZTE, but he said he won’t actually lobby, instead focusing on his assessment for the company. Still, the former senator said he’s already “made a bunch of phone calls” and visited Capitol Hill twice in the last two weeks to meet with members of Congress who have spoken out against ZTE or are leaders of relevant committees. He declined to say which lawmakers, but Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), two vocal ZTE critics, have spoken with him, according to their offices.
Lieberman said he also hopes to talk to officials at the Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security departments.
“I don’t expect at any point, certainly in this phase, to be giving ZTE’s point of view,” he said. “I’m really supposed to be listening and asking questions.” He said he wants to determine what can be done to “raise the level of trust in ZTE because they’ve got plenty of lobbyists and they don’t need me to do that, and I didn’t particularly want to do that.”
Lieberman, currently senior counsel in New York at the law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres, will report back to ZTE in roughly six months about what he’s found. After he finishes his investigation, he said the company could keep him on to develop a program for the company to “try to reassure both their consumers in America and also obviously the U.S. government.”
During his time in the Senate, Lieberman chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and co-sponsored legislation to create DHS. Toward the end of his tenure, he and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) championed proposed legislation to toughen cybersecurity protections for key U.S. infrastructure.
A ZTE spokesperson confirmed the Lieberman hire, adding in a statement, “ZTE initiated this fact-finding mission as part of its comprehensive effort to better understand and address any national security concerns of its customers, Congressional and Executive Branch officials in the U.S., and governments across the globe.”
The Commerce Department reimposed a seven-year ban on ZTE earlier this year for violating U.S. sanctions against North Korea and Iran, but Trump, in the midst of trade negotiations with China, took aim at his own administration’s decision.
“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast,” Trump tweeted on May 13. “Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”
The Commerce Department later lifted the ban, with ZTE agreeing to pay a $1 billion fine, replace its management team, and allow the U.S. to assign compliance officers to prevent future violations.
Trump’s meddling sparked bipartisan resistance in the Senate with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as well as Republicans like Rubio arguing the company presents a national security threat.
The Senate voted to revive the ban as part of a defense bill, but the prohibition later got softened when the legislation was reconciled with the House. In the end, Congress prevented ZTE from selling to government agencies but allowed its commercial business in the U.S. to continue.