White House denies prisoner swap in cases of Huawei executive and detained Canadians

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OTTAWA — The White House is rejecting the notion it participated in a prisoner swap after the U.S. withdrew a nearly three-year-old extradition warrant last Friday against senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Hours after her release, China set free Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who had been detained in retaliation for her arrest.

“Firstly, we would not refer to it in those terms,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday when asked if the White House was involved in a “prisoner swap.” “This is a law enforcement matter as it relates to, specifically, the Huawei official who was released. So, this is a legal matter.”

Psaki later added on the topic: “There is no link … We have an independent Justice Department that made independent decisions — law enforcement decisions. At the same time, we have made no secret about our push to have the two Michaels released. That's certainly positive news.”

Quick recap: Meng returned to China on Friday after striking the deal with U.S. prosecutors to end an extradition case close to the heart of tensions between Washington, Beijing and Ottawa.

As part of her deferred prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice, Meng admitted to basic facts behind the U.S. charges that underpinned the extradition request. They included accusations of fraud connected to her alleged violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Meng, who had been fighting extradition to the U.S. in a British Columbia court, left Canada on a flight around 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, a couple of hours after she was discharged.

Later that evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a stunning announcement that a flight carrying Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had exited Chinese air space and was heading to Canada. Trudeau said the men boarded their flight in China at 7:30 p.m. ET.

“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “For the past 1,000 days they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace and we are all inspired by them.”

The background: Canadian police arrested Meng, daughter of the Chinese telecom giant’s founder, at the Vancouver airport in December 2018 at the behest of the U.S.

The move enraged Beijing. Nine days later, Chinese authorities arrested Kovrig and Spavor on espionage charges.

Meng’s case has been tied to “the two Michaels,” but Chinese officials have denied any connection.

What Canada says: Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, was asked by CTV’s Question Period on Sunday whether the U.S. DOJ made the release of the two Michaels a condition of the resolution of the charges against Meng.

“Absolutely not,” Hillman said. “The DPA and the resolution of the charges against Ms. Meng was a completely independent process.”

Hillman added that as Meng’s case was moving closer to resolution the Chinese government decided it was no longer in its interest to continue holding Kovrig and Spavor. At that time, China started talks with Canadian officials in Beijing about making arrangements to release the Michaels.

She noted that the Canadians knew something was happening hours before they were due to leave China, but they only learned they were going home moments before they boarded the plane.

What China says: Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said Monday that Kovrig and Spavor were released after they applied for bail for “medical reasons,” according to a government transcript.

Biden’s efforts to help: Psaki told the press conference Monday that President Joe Biden, as well as any administration and national security officials with contact with the Chinese side, have made clear that they wanted to see the release of the two Canadians.

She said Biden raised the issue of Kovrig and Spavor directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping on their call earlier this month. Xi brought up the case of Meng, Psaki added.

But she said the leaders did not negotiate anything related to the Meng, Kovrig and Spavor cases.

Psaki was also asked about critics who say the Biden administration’s deferred prosecution agreement with Meng shows the president is appeasing and capitulating to China, and sending a message to Beijing that hostage taking is effective.

What’s next: Going forward, Psaki said the U.S. policy toward China is unchanged.

“This was a legal decision — it does not change our view, this administration's view or [Biden’s] view as it relates to our concerns about economic practices and coercive actions,” she said.

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