Trump has made it hard for the international community to tell whether he’s acting out of an earnest concern for national security or whether he’s motivated by base protectionism. And, frankly, it’s hard for the U.S. Congress, the courts, and the American people to tell, too.
Perhaps more unsettling, albeit less intuitive, is that Trump’s penchant for conflating national-security concerns with economic justifications may be even more of a problem when he actually has a plausible national-security basis for his trade policies. Last month, Trump halted the acquisition of Qualcomm, a leading U.S. chipmaker and cellular technology firm, by the Singapore-based Broadcom Limited. The proposed $117-billion hostile takeover would have given Broadcom, a major semiconductor firm, ownership of perhaps the world’s premier wireless communications technology firm in Qualcomm. The Trump administration was apparently worried that Broadcom’s cozy relationship with Chinese companies closely tied to Beijing would mean that the proposed Qualcomm acquisition would give China inordinate power in the global cellular technology market. Trump halted the deal through presidential proclamation, indicating that Broadcom, if allowed to purchase Qualcomm, “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.”
Here, Trump’s invocation of national security was plausible—convincing, even. In its review of the proposed Qualcomm deal, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency board in the executive branch that conducts national-security assessments of commercial proposals, reportedly focused on the fact that Broadcom engages in joint-business ventures with Huawei, a powerful Chinese telecommunications and technology firm with close ties to the Chinese government. Putting Qualcomm in Broadcom’s hands could have given China immense influence in shaping the global telecommunications industry, from semiconductors to cellular chips to call transmissions.
China already plays a sizable role in setting standards for forthcoming wireless technologies like 5G—standards it could soon foist on the rest of the world, allowing it to promote industrial policies that favor its own state-sponsored products over those developed on the open market, as the Treasury Department emphasized in a letter to the lawyers trying to finalize the deal. An acquisition of a U.S. tech powerhouse by a foreign company could sap America’s long-term economic strength. It would also shift power to governments that don’t share its commitments to free expression and stifle competition by consolidating control of the critical semiconductor industry among an even smaller number of firms.
All told, President Trump, with CFIUS’s support, had what looked like a solid case for halting the Qualcomm deal on national-security grounds. But confusion about why he halted the deal ensued nonetheless. Congressional Democrats quickly admitted that they “don’t know the links between Broadcom and China” but nonetheless felt “unequivocally [that] President Trump and his administration made the right decision on blocking Broadcom from taking over Qualcomm.” (This was an uncertainty perhaps aggravated by the oblique language in Treasury’s public letter.) The Democrats thus praised Trump for halting the deal based on an undefined mix of national-security and economic concerns. Congress, like the rest of us, does not get to see the entirety of CFIUS’s work. But Congress, like the rest of us, has become numb to Trump’s insistence that his economic policy is, at every turn, driven by his concern for national security. So Congressional Democrats ultimately didn’t know quite what to make of this invocation of national security to drive trade policy, when that justification seemed plausible but overused.