The English Session Orchestra perform the reveal of Huawei, Unfinished Symphony at Cadogan Hall, London on Feb. 4.
David M. Benett—Getty Images
By Clay Chandler and Jeff John Roberts
February 27, 2019

This article first appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

Bob Lighthizer isn’t usually the kind of guy folks feel sorry for. And yet the pugnacious U.S. trade representative has won a small measure of sympathy in Washington since Friday, when he engaged in a brief—and ultimately futile—verbal sparring match with his boss. The focus of that exchange was the term “memoranda of understanding.” Lighthizer, the veteran lawyer, opined that MOUs are standard practice in trade deals; Trump, channeling Fox’s Lou Dobbs, dismissed them as meaningless. Lighthizer climbed down instantly.

Even so, Trump’s reprimand, delivered in an Oval Office meeting packed with Chinese trade negotiators and TV cameras, offered a fleeting glimpse into his predicament as he heads into the final stage of U.S.-China trade talks. Lighthizer is trying to hang tough, extract every last concession from Beijing—as Trump telegraphs more clearly than ever that he’s losing patience.

Lighthizer heads to Capitol Hill today to brief Congress on his progress. The New York Times tees up that appearance with a remarkably empathetic assessment of Lighthizer’s dilemma. The headline: “Trump Undermines Top Trade Adviser as He Pushes for a Deal.” The piece portrays Lighthizer as “an ardent supporter of the president and a longtime China critic” who now finds himself in an “uncomfortable bind.”

That strikes me as an apt characterization of a lot of senior officials in the Trump administration these days. Consider the plight of the delegation of U.S. officials from State, Defense and Commerce who landed in Barcelona this week for the telecommunications industry’s biggest trade fair. Their mission: to dissuade U.S. allies from purchasing gear made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies when they roll out their 5G networks. (Data Sheet’s Aaron Pressman, who is on the ground in Barcelona, has a fresh dispatch of their efforts on this front).

And yet, on Friday, just before that group departed, Trump tweeted that the U.S. should win the 5G race “through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies”—appearing to contradict reports that the White House is preparing an executive order that would shut Huawei out of U.S. 5G networks.

The Wall Street Journal’s dispatch from Barcelona contrasts Huawei’s elaborately choreographed media presence there (complete with multiple sponsorship booths and wall-to-wall display of the company’s logo), with the U.S. delegation’s ramshackle Tuesday news conference, held in a borrowed booth and conducted without a podium or microphone.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to contradict both Lighthizer and his Justice Department by hinting that he’s preparing to drop fraud charges against Huawei chief financial office Meng Wanzhou and possibly dismiss two U.S. indictments against Huawei itself to close the trade deal. “We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks, and we’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys,” he told reporters at the Oval Office meeting Friday.

Huawei’s public statements are verging on triumphant. In Barcelona, Guo Ping, one of Huawei’s rotating chairman, took to the event’s main stage to issue a surprisingly blunt rejection of U.S. allegations. The U.S. has “no evidence, nothing” to back its charges, he declared. Guo also took a swipe at the U.S.’s security record, flashing a photo of former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden, who leaked document’s revealing the NSA’s use of U.S.-made telecom equipment for a spy system known as PRISM. The image came with a taunt: “Prism, prism on the wall, who’s the most trustworthy of them all?”

Clay Chandler


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