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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?”
Take that, trolls: U.S. Cyber Command knocked a notorious Russian troll factory offline as part of a campaign to protect this country’s midterm elections last fall. The campaign, which also involved sending direct messages to individual trolls, relied in part on a new law that gives U.S. cyber units more leeway to carry out offensive operations.
Good riddance: Twitter permanently banned noted jerk Jacob Wohl for creating fake accounts. Wohl’s recent antics include a fake report accusing Robert Mueller of sexual assault and a hoax that Justice RBG was dead.
YouTube under fire (again): A pediatrician discovered clips about how to commit suicide spliced into several YouTube Kids videos. The platform said it is “always working to improve our systems.”
Same old song: The Justice Department, under pressure from the music industry, is considering whether to scrap long-time consent decrees that oblige royalty organizations to license their full catalogue of songs to anyone who can pay.
AT&T acquisition A-okay: A unanimous appeals court signed off on AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, ending the Justice Department’s long-shot bid to block the vertical merger.
Better late than never: The FTC has hatched a 17-lawyer task force to scrutinize anti-competitive behavior in the tech industry. Its mandate will include retroactive merger reviews. But skeptics see the move as little more than bureaucratic reshuffling.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Europe’s bad ideas for the Internet: Media scholar Jeff Jarvis takes a close look at recent policy proposals to regulate the web in the UK and the EU, including the notorious Article 11 “link tax.” He correctly perceives a dangerous brew of “corporate protectionism and a rising moral panic about technology” as governments seek to stick it to U.S. tech companies:
I fear all this is hubris: to think that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be before we dare to define and limit the opportunities it presents. I fear the paternalistic unto authoritarian worldview that those with power know better than those without. I fear the unintended — and intended — consequences of all this regulation and protectionism. I trust the public to figure it out eventually. We figured out printing and steam power and the telegraph and radio and television. We will figure out the internet if given half a chance.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
BEFORE YOU GO
In a bit of good news for green energy boosters, researchers at Google’s Deep Mind say deep learning models have made wind power much more predictable. In practice, this means wind farm owners can now tell utility providers one day in advance how much power they will contribute to the grid. This predicability can reportedly boost the value of wind projects by 20 percent.