FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday that he’s “deeply concerned” about foreign companies like ZTE gaining access to the U.S. telecommunications network, days after President Donald Trump sparked controversy by expressing a willingness to save the Chinese phone-maker.
Wray told lawmakers at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that he wouldn’t comment publicly on a specific company — but “we at the FBI remain deeply concerned that any company beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values are not companies that we want to be gaining positions of power inside our telecommunications network.”
“That gives them the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information, that gives them the capacity to conduct undetected espionage, that gives them the capacity to exert pressure or control,” Wray added.
Wray was facing pointed questions stemming from an out-of-left-field Trump tweet on Sunday about ZTE, which is floundering financially after U.S. regulators American companies from buying or selling ZTE products for seven years after it violated sanctions against doing business with Iran and North Korea. The company was previously hit with a $1.19 billion penalty over the issue.
But Trump appeared to throw the company a lifeline on Sunday, tweeting, “Too many jobs in China lost.” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross followed, announcing that his department would consider an alternative deal with the firm.
The sudden turn of events drew bipartisan outrage and alarmed national security experts, who warned that the Chinese government leveraged its domestic companies with footprints abroad to spy on other countries.
On Wednesday, a pair of angry Democratic senators — Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland — pressed Wray for answers about the ZTE situation.
Van Hollen demanded: “What was President Trump thinking when he tweeted out what he did about putting ZTE back in business?”
Wray acknowledged that he was unaware of any prior consultation Trump had with the FBI about the tweet.
“What I will tell you is that we take very seriously our obligation to protect our national security,” he added.
Wray is the latest national security official to seemingly split with the president over the ZTE issue.
Earlier this week, the nation’s leading counterintelligence official indicated that ZTE could pose a national security risk, with its devices potential tools for Chinese espionage.
The Pentagon also recently halted the sale of phones made by ZTE in retail outlets on military bases around the world.
According to various news reports, Trump administration officials see the ZTE situation as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations or for Chinese cooperation on North Korea.
Leahy went in a different direction, insinuating that Trump’s reversal may have been tied to his own financial matters.
“I was concerned that 72 hours after [the] Chinese government pumped a half a billion dollars into a theme park in Indonesia that [has] Donald Trump’s name on it, we said we should put those people back to work,” he told Wray. “But that’s probably just coincidence.”