Last year, on the afternoon of Aug. 16, the deal was sealed. The U.S. Commerce Department had picked Peter Lichtenbaum, a Washington-based partner at the law firm Covington & Burling, for a coveted role serving as the special compliance coordinator overseeing the Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp.

Lichtenbaum told a Commerce official in an email that day he was “honored” to be selected. The compliance monitor would have unprecedented access across a company in the crosshairs of U.S. national security and trade officials over its record of violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea and its desire not to be shut out of U.S. markets.