A surprisingly sharp blow by Little Marco. So much of the Trump ego rests on his perception of himself as a master negotiator. Accusing him of getting outmaneuvered at the bargaining table is a big deal.

Accusing him of getting outmaneuvered at the bargaining table by China may be grounds for a snotty presidential retort or two on Twitter.

Nationalist Marco Rubio, a.k.a. Rubio 3.0, may be my favorite model.

If the GOP were a populist party rather than a Trump personality cult, that critique might inspire a little soul-searching about the president’s vaunted “toughness.” ZTE has humiliated the U.S. more than once recently, after all. It’s been accused for years of exploiting its tech to let the Chinese government surveil its customers. It ignored U.S. sanctions to do business with Iran and North Korea, then reached a settlement with the Commerce Department to pay a huge fine and discipline executives responsible for its sanctions-busting. Then it ignored that, choosing to pay bonuses to those execs instead. Commerce responded by barring U.S. companies from selling goods to ZTE for seven years — a big deal to ZTE, as it relies heavily on American components to make its telecom products. If Commerce didn’t back down, the company might go bankrupt.

News broke this morning that Commerce might indeed be about to back down, at the White House’s behest. Trump needs China’s help on North Korea after all — which, you would think, would have been a good reason not to slap tariffs on Beijing and risk a trade war this spring, as the U.S. pursued diplomacy with Kim Jong Un. But Trump did slap tariffs on them right around the time that Commerce slapped its sales prohibition on ZTE. China responded aggressively with tariffs of its own and now POTUS is in a bind, not wanting to cave and look weak but also knowing that digging in really could risk a full-blown trade war and ruin the chances of dialogue with North Korea.

The word came down this morning from the WSJ that he was, in fact, leaning towards a deal on ZTE:

President Donald Trump’s administration is working on details of a deal with the Chinese, and may lift a ban on U.S. companies selling hardware and software to Chinese corporate ZTE if it works out, the Wall Street Journal reported late on Monday.

In exchange for Trump’s removal of the ban, ZTE will make major changes in management, board seats and potentially pay fines, according to the Journal. Details of the deal are still being worked out, it added.

A fine plus punishing executives sounds a lot like the penalty Commerce already imposed on ZTE when it first found out about its business with Iran and North Korea. That’s what Rubio’s worried about. What lesson will China and its firms learn if they can break agreements with the U.S. and then be allowed to resume those agreements later with little or no penalty for the earlier breach?

Nothing’s set in stone yet, though. Reuters is reporting that part of the ZTE deal may involve China agreeing to purchase more U.S. agricultural products, which would sweeten the pot. Trump’s problem, though, is that ZTE isn’t really a trade matter. It’s a national security matter. The company ignored sanctions on U.S. enemies; if China can buy/bribe their way out of penalties for that then it sets a precedent in which other foreign regimes can buy their way out of sanctions too. Suddenly sanctions, America’s most potent tool for imposing its will internationally short of war, won’t be as much of a threat as they are now and bad actors will be emboldened to act out against U.S. interests. That’s why Rubio’s thinking about a “veto-proof” congressional solution in his tweets. He might not be exaggerating:

[T]he Senate Banking Committee separately approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to remove sanctions on any Chinese telecommunications company. It passed through the panel easily by a 23 to 2 margin in a bipartisan rebuke to the administration’s possible plans…

In a statement following the vote Tuesday, Van Hollen said “we must continue to work to stop the President from absolving ZTE of its many transgressions in the interest of Chinese jobs.”

Democrats in particular are enjoying the idea of Xi teaching Trump the art of the deal:

Normally I’d be skeptical of the GOP joining with Dems to try to rein Trump in, but in fairness to them, they’ve done it once before during his presidency in a high-profile way. Veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate passed new sanctions on Russia last year, which Trump signed into law (and then, uh, basically forgot about). Republicans *have* been willing to defy POTUS when it comes to punishing rival powers for threatening U.S. national security. A veto-proof bill enforcing sanctions on ZTE, though, would be an especially embarrassing (and risky, given the North Korean diplomacy) act of defiance if Congress managed to make it happen. If Trump makes a trade deal that involves lifting the ban on ZTE, are Ryan and McConnell going to pull out the rug from under him and kill it by taking ZTE off the table? Most Republicans don’t want a trade war, remember; they’re not protectionists, even if they sympathize with Trump in wanting to punish China for stealing U.S. intellectual property. It’s hard to imagine them blocking Trump from climbing down from an economy-battering trade standoff, particularly knowing how angry China will be if ZTE goes bankrupt due to Commerce’s penalties.

As for Rubio’s claim that Team Trump is being outnegotiated by China, read this. The basic problem is what it’s always been: Rather than firmly side with “globalists” like Steve Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow or nationalists like Peter Navarro and Robert Lightizer, Trump has staffed up with members of both camps, leading to infighting, muddled messages, and easy opportunities for the Chinese to play members of the team who are friendlier to trade off of those who aren’t. Via Mediaite, here’s his old buddy Scarborough dunking on him over it.