By Aaron Pressman and Clay Chandler
March 13, 2019

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By hinting so publicly and so often that he might grant clemency for Meng Wanzhou, President Trump has created for himself an awkward dilemma.

Meng is the chief financial officer of Huawei Technology, the giant Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer. She also happens to be the daughter of company’s founder Ren Zhengfei. Meng was detained by Canadian authorities in December at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, and remains in Vancouver pending extradition on fraud charges.

Justice Department officials insist the case against Meng is a legal matter and has nothing to do with the Trump administration’s disputes with China’s leadership over trade policy. And yet Trump has suggested on multiple occasions that, as far as he’s concerned, everything is negotiable: he’s willing to intervene to have charges against Meng dropped if that’s what it takes to close a trade deal.

The Financial Times, in a timely analysis, ponders the question: “Can Trump intervene to free Huawei’s Meng?” The short answer is yes. Citing the opinions of chorus of legal experts, the FT concludes that the constitution grants the president ultimate responsibility for making sure laws are upheld; provided his actions don’t benefit him directly, he can pretty much do whatever he wants.

By all accounts, the trade talks have bogged down in recent days. Meng’s fate may one of the final sticking points. Per the FT, if Meng is extradited before a deal is signed, the trade talks would be in jeopardy. But if Trump moves to have the case against Meng dismissed, he’ll face backlash from many camps: the Justice Department, the national security community, congressional Democrats and leaders of his own party (not to mention a lot of angry Canadians).

If Trump orders the attorney general to drop the charges, experts say, he’ll undermine the independence of the U.S. judiciary system. One way to get around that might be to let the charges stand but ask the State Department to drop the extradition request.

Either option creates a dangerous precedent. The FT quotes Brian Michael, a former federal prosecutor and partner at King & Spalding, who worries that meddling in the Meng case to gain political advantage will encourage other countries to see all efforts by the Justice department to pursue foreign nationals as politically motivated and therefore fair game for diplomatic haggling.

For U.S. business executives (and, gulp, American journalists who live and travel in China) the biggest risk is one the FT‘s analysis doesn’t consider. If China and other governments see Meng as a political hostage rather than a suspect in a legitimate criminal investigation, what’s to prevent leaders in other nations from seizing American executives on trumped up charges, too?

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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