Senate Republicans grilled a Biden nominee to be the intelligence community’s top lawyer over his recent law firm work for the Chinese government and Huawei, questioning why he’d help a company seen as a national security threat.
Christopher Fonzone, who spent 2013 through the end of President Barack Obama’s tenure as a counsel to the president and a National Security Council legal adviser, was nominated by President Joe Biden in March to serve as general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Fonzone took a gig as partner at Sidley Austin, a global law firm, in 2017, where he did legal work in 2018 for Huawei and for China’s Ministry of Commerce, though he said the help was limited.
Pressed by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska about Huawei's role in the “Chinese Communist Party's genocide in Xinjiang,” Fonzone said he was aware of the risk that the U.S. government thought Huawei posed. He also said he worked fewer than 10 hours on legal advice for Huawei.
“I’m very aware of what Director Haines has said about Huawei, what this committee has said about Huawei, and if I was confirmed I would be driven by what the intelligence community’s views are of Huawei,” Fonzone said.
In a statement after the hearing, Sasse said Fonzone should not be confirmed.
“This is straightforward: You can get a Senate-confirmed national security position or you can work for the Chinese Communist Party and its national champions like Huawei, but you shouldn’t do both,” the senator said.
Fonzone had previously written to the Senate that his “sole involvement” with the Chinese government “was participation in a moot court to prepare other advocates for the argument.” Sidley's side lost unanimously in the case pitting Chinese price-fixing companies against U.S. vitamin C purchasers.
And in relation to Huawei, Fonzone wrote that he'd help the company navigate U.S. administrative law.
A 2012 report from the House Intelligence Committee concluded Huawei poses “a security threat to the United States and to our systems.”
And 2018, the year Fonzone helped Huawei, saw a flurry of U.S. activity against the Chinese company, including a proposed rule from the Federal Communications Commission in May 2020 that sought to ensure U.S. subsidies are “not spent on equipment or services from suppliers” like Huawei “that pose a national security threat.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida noted Tuesday that “China uses its technological ambitions to further its military and global ambitions, and one of their national champions is Huawei” and that China's government uses law firms to help “advance their objectives.”
Fonzone said, “I don’t think either of those representations, which were consistent with my entire legal practice, which was largely around helping companies understand and comply with U.S. law, would effect my ability to give Director Haines objective advice as she serves as the DNI.”
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton repeatedly asked Fonzone if Sidley had a policy that would let lawyers decline work they found “morally objectionable.”
“The work I did for the Ministry of Commerce and Huawei … was consistent with my practice of helping companies understand U.S. law, comply with U.S. law, and/or prepare for an argument … So I took it in that vein — that’s why I took that work,” the Biden nominee testified, adding, “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to decline the work if I would’ve tried.”
The Arkansas Republican told Fonzone that “the committee has concerns about what’s come to be known as the China Lobby.”
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