The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton:
In the midst of US trade delegations going to Beijing and Chinese delegations coming to Washington, Ross called me in mid-April, my second week on the job, to talk about ZTE, a Chinese telecom company. ZTE had committed massive violations of both our Iran and our North Korea sanctions, had been successfully prosecuted by Justice, and was operating under a criminal-consent decree monitoring and regulating its behavior. A court-appointed master overseeing the decree had just reported extensive violations, which could result in significant additional fines, as well as cutting ZTE off from the US market, which Ross was prepared to do. I didn’t consider this a trade issue but a law-enforcement matter. If ZTE had been a US company, we would have toasted them, and I saw no reason to hold back because ZTE was Chinese. Nonetheless, the State Department worried about offending China, so Ross wanted to know how to proceed the next day with a planned Commerce Department announcement. I told him to go ahead, which he did.
Within a few weeks, however, Trump was unhappy with Ross’s decision and wanted to modify the hefty penalties he had proposed, with Mnuchin quickly agreeing. I was appalled, because by rescinding what Ross had already told China, Trump was undercutting him (which, as I learned shortly, was standard operating procedure for Trump) and forgiving ZTE’s unacceptable criminal behavior. Even so, Trump decided to call Xi Jinping, just hours before announcing that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Trump began by complaining about China’s trade practices, which he believed were so unfair, and said China needed to buy more US agricultural products. Xi actually raised ZTE first, and Trump called our actions very strong, even harsh. He said he had told Ross to work something out for China. Xi replied that if that were done, he would owe Trump a favor and Trump immediately responded he was doing this because of Xi. I was stunned by the unreciprocated nature of the concession, and because, as Ross told me later, ZTE had almost been destroyed by the penalties imposed. Reversing the decision would be inexplicable. This was policy by personal whim and impulse.