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Photo: Getty Images

In an interview with Reuters, President Trump suggested he might be willing to trade an arrested Chinese executive for a better trade deal. Such an offer, experts tell Axios, is uncomfortably transactional, dangerous to U.S. institutions and alliances, and quite likely a constitutional no-no.

Background: The administration reportedly began discussing using Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the global electronics giant Huawei, as a bargaining chip very soon after her arrest in Canada for violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

What Trump said: Answering a Reuters question about intervening in the Meng case:

“Whatever’s good for this country, I would do.... If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made – which is a very important thing — what’s good for national security — I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary."

The Department of Justice bristles at the suggestion it pursues any arrest with the purpose of advancing political negotiations. But Trump's statement gives that charge weight in this case.

  • At a Congressional hearing Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General John Demers addressed the potential for the DOJ to be miscast: "What we do at the Justice Department is law enforcement.... It's very important for other countries to understand that we are not a tool of trade when we bring those cases."
  • "Frankly," replied Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), "that's the danger of the president's statement. It makes it look like law enforcement is a tool."
  • The DOJ, for its part, appears to have clean hands. The Huawei investigation dates back to 2016, 1 president and 2 attorneys general ago. It was not a spur-of-the-moment arrest.

Executive-branch norms: It's worth noting that the president likely does not have the right to interfere with DOJ investigations. Trump has had a few other scuffles over this very issue.

  • Courts have never formally settled that issue, but the principle is deeply held in the U.S.

Campaign promises: Trump campaigned as the tough-on-Iran candidate, with reinstated sanctions a centerpiece of that strategy. Yet Huawei would be the second company, after ZTE, that he's been willing to forgive violating those sanctions.

Relations with Canada: Canada did not arrest a high-profile Chinese executive thinking the U.S. mainly intended to use her in trade negotiations.

  • Trump's statement might have aided Meng's defense, which can now credibly say she's a political target. Per Reuters, that argument "would resonate in Canada where judges are particularly wary of abuse of the court system."
  • Meanwhile, Canada now faces potential Chinese boycotts and possibly even the arrest of citizens abroad in China in retaliation.

The rule of law: In this situation — in a striking parallel to the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S.-based journalist murdered by Saudi Arabia — Trump's position forthrightly elbows aside the law for transactional needs.

  • "At its core, this is an Iran sanctions issue," said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who worried blunting punishments for violating sanctions might encourage more violations.

U.S. business: If Canada faces Chinese retaliation, the U.S. might, too. One executive Axios interviewed had researched all of the countries that have extradition treaties with China to keep his employees safe.

  • But it doesn't end there. "What about companies with Canadian supply chains?" asked Rosenberg. "They now have to figure out if they will be able to deliver products with parts that come from China."

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

2 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 2 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."