White House stresses US Justice Department’s independence in striking Meng Wanzhou deal

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The White House on Monday sought to play down its role in the Department of Justice’s decision to allow Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese executive detained in Canada on fraud charges, to return home last week, and said its policy to hold China accountable for rights violations and economic malpractice would remain unchanged.

After nearly three years living under house arrest in Vancouver, Huawei Technologies Co’s Meng was released on Friday after admitting wrongdoing – but not guilt – in a case relating to alleged violations of US sanctions on Iran.

Congressional Republicans have seized on the US deal with Meng as a sign of capitulation to Beijing by the administration of US President Joe Biden.

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Addressing that criticism on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested the White House had not pressured the Justice Department to resolve Meng’s case, calling the decision a “legal matter” overseen by independent prosecutors.

“It may feel foreign to [congressional Republicans] that the Department of Justice is independent, but it is independent in this administration,” Psaki said in a news briefing, alluding to former president Donald Trump’s efforts to direct his attorney general to investigate political opponents.

“This is a legal matter,” Psaki continued. “It was an announcement made by the Department of Justice and it’s inappropriate for me to weigh in on that further.”

On Friday, US prosecutors struck a deferred prosecution deal with Meng whereby she admitted to misleading HSBC about the nature of Huawei’s relationship with a company that did business in Iran and admitted that Huawei’s business dealings violated US sanctions against Tehran.

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If she does not contradict those statements of fact, the charges against her will be dropped by December 1, 2022. The deal does not require any additional cooperation by Meng.

Shortly after the deal was reached, China released two Canadians who were detained days after Meng’s arrest and charged with endangering national security – viewed by Ottawa to be a case of “hostage diplomacy”.

As Chinese officials have done repeatedly in their engagements with US counterparts since Meng’s arrest, Chinese leader Xi Jinping raised her case with Biden when the two spoke by phone earlier this month, Psaki said.

Biden also raised the case of the two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – but there was “no negotiation” between the two leaders, she said.

US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is one of the more strident China hawks in Washington. Photo: Bloomberg
US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is one of the more strident China hawks in Washington. Photo: Bloomberg

Psaki rejected a characterisation of the successive releases as a “prisoner swap” and said there was “no link” between the two cases.

As news broke of Meng’s deal with US prosecutors on Friday, but before it was announced that the Canadians had been released, Senator Tom Cotton led the criticism from Republican China hawks, accusing Biden of “folding” to Beijing’s “hostage-taking and blackmail”.

“This surrender only encourages the Communists in Beijing to take more Americans and our allies hostage in the future,” said Cotton, one of Capitol Hill’s most strident China critics.

Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, said on Twitter: “This sounds like more appeasement from Biden toward the [Chinese Communist Party].”

Psaki countered on Monday that the resolution of Meng’s case had “zero impact” on the administration’s “substantive policy” toward China.

“It is a relationship of competition,” she said of the administration’s view of ties with Beijing. “And we’re going to continue to hold the [People’s Republic of China] accountable for its unfair economic practices, its coercive actions around the world and its human rights abuses. And we will continue to do that in partnership with our allies around the world.”

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