The Cable

Trump Taps Protectionist Robert Lighthizer as His New Trade Rep

Just who will make trade policy under Trump may be unclear, but the protectionist trend is crystal clear.


On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump announced trade lawyer and former Reagan administration official Robert Lighthizer as his pick for U.S. trade representative, adding another protectionist voice to a constellation of free-trade bashers the president-elect has assembled even before taking office.

Lighthizer, former deputy U.S. trade representative for President Ronald Reagan, will take the nominal helm of U.S. trade policy, where he’ll have to deliver on Trump’s campaign pledges to repeal multilateral trade deals that have been a fixture of modern U.S. trade policy in favor of “fair bilateral trade deals.”

“He will do an amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity,” Trump said on Tuesday in a press release announcing Lighthizer’s nomination. In the same press release, Lighthizer promised to “level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies.” Most economists say that automation and other global economic trends, rather than trade deals, have cut U.S. employment in sectors like manufacturing.

Lighthizer’s appointment drew a lukewarm response from at least some prominent pro-trade Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

“I look forward to a vigorous discussion of Bob’s trade philosophy and priorities when he comes before the Finance Committee,” said Hatch on Tuesday. Trump’s rhetorical war on free trade deals has placed some pro-free trade Republican lawmakers in an awkward spot, caught between pushing free trade and supporting their party’s newly-elected president.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lighthizer would join a new and confusing system of parallel trade advisers and structures that Trump established without clear divisions of labor. In December, Trump named China-bashing economist Peter Navarro as head of a newly-formed National Trade Council, lauding Navarro’s efforts to “challeng[e] the prevailing Washington orthodoxy on so-called free trade.”

Trump also indicated his Commerce Secretary pick, Wall Street financier Wilbur Ross, would play the lead role in driving his trade agenda, potentially sidelining the U.S. trade representative’s traditional role in shaping administration trade policy. And Trump tapped his campaign’s Israel advisor, Jason Greenblatt, to be a “special representative for international negotiations,” a newly-created position that Trump said will focus on “international negotiations of all types, and trade deals around the world.” The president-elect has not yet clarified the divisions of labor and authority between all these posts.

If his new appointments are confusing, Trump’s overall intent on trade is not. The president-elect’s top administration picks indicate a plan to make good on campaign promises to dismantle the scaffolding of free trade that dates back several decades.

During the campaign, Trump called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a hallmark of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the “worst deal ever.” He also pledged to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade deal President Barack Obama’s administration has been negotiating for years, on his first day in office.

Lighthizer, an international trade lawyer at law firm Skaddaen, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and former chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee, would replace current U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. Froman led the Obama administration’s failed bids at creating new multilateral trade architectures in Asia with the TPP and in Europe with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

European leaders abandoned hopes of finalizing a TTIP deal after Trump’s election in November. The deal, which would have drastically reduced tariffs and barriers to trade between the United States and EU, faced a groundswell of opposition in Europe from activists and politicians concerned that the deal would infringe consumer rights.

Lighthizer’s playbook doesn’t only date back to the 1980s. In the past, Lighthizer pushed for Republicans to turn away from its traditional free trade platform, and return to the protectionist roots that helped nurse American industry against European mercantilism in the late 18th century.

“The recent blind faith some Republicans have shown toward free trade actually represents more of an aberration than a hallmark of true American conservatism,” Lighthizer wrote in a 2011 op-ed, praising Trump’s trade stance during the real estate tycoon’s failed 2012 presidential bid.

Photo credit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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