Top Trump administration officials such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had tried to separate the president's push to boost the telecommunications company from trade talks with China. Ross this week called it an "enforcement" issue, not a trade dispute.
Trump's public statements have muddled that message.
In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, the president said "there has been no folding" on his pledges to crack down on Chinese trade practices. He said high-level meetings on the U.S.-China trade relationship "haven't even started yet."
Trump also argued that the U.S. "has very little to give" in talks "because it has given so much over the years." He added: "China has much to give!"
Last month, the Trump administration barred U.S. companies from selling to ZTE for seven years. The ban came in response to the company's shipping of American goods to Iran and North Korea in violation of sanctions. It effectively crippled ZTE.
On Sunday, the president said he instructed his Commerce Department to find a way to help the telecommunications equipment maker "get back into business, fast." "Too many jobs" were lost in China, the president added.
Senate Democrats accused Trump of abandoning his pledge to crack down on alleged trade abuses by China. One Senate Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida, also warned of national security risks and said he hoped "this isn't the beginning of backing down to China."
Trump's concessions on ZTE come as the world's two largest economies undertake trade discussions to avoid a potential trade war. Reports have indicated Trump could ease up on ZTE in exchange for a Chinese pullback on tariffs that threaten to damage the U.S. agricultural industry.
Top Chinese officials are in the U.S. this week for trade talks.