Former Sen. Joe Lieberman joins China's ZTE to ease national security concerns amid lawmakers' distrust

  • ZTE reportedly hires former Sen. Joe Lieberman to spearhead a national security assessment of its products.
  • "There are obviously still concerns about the safety of their products or the extent to which their products could be used to compromise American security in any way or even individual security," Lieberman tells Politico in an interview. ZTE has "decided to really try to get ahead of those concerns and be in a position to answer them," he says.
  • Lieberman adds that while he will register as a lobbyist, he will be focusing on his national security evaluation and won't actually lobby for ZTE on Capitol Hill.
Joe Lieberman, former U.S. Senator (I-CT), at the United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) 2018 Iran Summit in New York City. 
SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images
Joe Lieberman, former U.S. Senator (I-CT), at the United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) 2018 Iran Summit in New York City. 

ZTE has reportedly hired former Sen. Joe Lieberman to help the Chinese telecom giant allay fears in Washington that it poses a threat to national security. He will spearhead an assessment of its products, as the company tries to ensure U.S. officials that it is not a spy for the Chinese government.

Politico reported Thursday evening that the hire makes Lieberman the third former U.S. lawmaker working for ZTE in Washington. Former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and former Rep. Jon Chistensen, R-Neb., had also been tapped by the company. Lieberman, a former Democrat, left the Senate as an independent in 2013.

"There are obviously still concerns about the safety of their products or the extent to which their products could be used to compromise American security in any way or even individual security," Lieberman told Politico in an interview. ZTE has "decided to really try to get ahead of those concerns and be in a position to answer them," he said.

Neither Lieberman nor ZTE immediately responded to CNBC's requests for comment on the report.

A ZTE spokesperson told Politico: "ZTE initiated this fact-finding mission as part of its comprehensive effort to better understand and address any national security concerns of its customers, Congressional and Executive Branch officials in the U.S., and governments across the globe."

Lieberman added that while he will register as a lobbyist, he will be focused on his national security evaluation and won't actually lobby for ZTE on Capitol Hill. But he also mentioned that he has visited D.C. twice in recent weeks to meet with the company's critics in Congress.

ZTE is known for making inexpensive smartphones. It also sells cellular communications equipment around the world. The company was fined more than $1 billion by the U.S. in 2017 for breaking sanctions that barred it from selling products, some of which potentially contain American-made components, to embargoed countries such as North Korea, Cuba and Iran. When the Commerce Department in April banned ZTE from buying American parts, it nearly killed the firm.

U.S. lawmakers have accused ZTE of functioning as a state-backed enterprise rather than a publicly traded company. Senators of both parties, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., have warned of national security and espionage risks posed by allowing ZTE to operate freely in the U.S.

But President Donald Trump, who is among Washington's fiercest critics of China's trade practices, jumped to the company's rescue when it teetered on collapse.

In May, Trump announced via tweet that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping were working to give ZTE "a way to get back into business, fast." Some officials were surprised by the announcement from the president, who noted that "too many jobs in China" had been lost.

He said in a follow-up that ZTE "buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies," and that accepting the company would be "reflective of the larger trade deal" his administration was negotiating with China.