President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday tapped Robert Lighthizer, a former Reagan administration official and longtime international trade attorney, to be his U.S. trade representative.
The Cabinet-level post will be especially important under Trump, who pledged during his campaign to strike trade deals that are more advantageous for the U.S. and scrap ones he deems unfair.
"Ambassador Lighthizer is going to do an outstanding job representing the United States as we fight for good trade deals that put the American worker first," Trump said in a statement.
"He has extensive experience striking agreements that protect some of the most important sectors of our economy, and has repeatedly fought in the private sector to prevent bad deals from hurting Americans," Trump said. "He will do an amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity."
The significance of trade to Trump was made clear shortly after the announcement when he complained via Twitter that General Motors Corp. was selling Chevrolet Cruze vehicles made in Mexico tax-free in the U.S.
Trump warned that a "big border tax" could be coming.
GM responded that nearly all the Chevy Cruze vehicles sold in the U.S. are made here.
"All Chevrolet Cruze sedans sold in the U.S. are built in GM's assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio," the company said. "GM builds the Chevrolet Cruze hatchback for global markets in Mexico, with a small number sold in the U.S."
Lighthizer called Trump's intention to nominate him "a very high honor."
"I am fully committed to President-elect Trump's mission to level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies which will benefit all Americans," Lighthizer said.
Lighthizer was deputy trade representative during the Reagan administration with responsibility for industry, agriculture, investment and trade policy matters. He negotiated two dozen bilateral trade deals, according to his biography for the Skadden, Arps Slate, Meagher and Flom law firm, where he has headed the international trade practice for about 30 years.
Before joining the Reagan administration, Lighthizer had been chief of staff for the Senate Finance Committee. In that job, he helped pass legislation that implemented a major round of trade negotiations.
The Trump statement said Lighthizer "has represented American manufacturers in many of the largest and most significant trade cases of the last 25 years."
"He has worked on scores of successful cases that resulted in reducing unfair imports and helping thousands of American workers and numerous businesses," the statement said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he looked forward to "a vigorous discussion of Bob's trade philosophy and priorities" during his confirmation hearing.
"Ensuring our past, present and future trade agreements are the best possible deals for American workers and job creators is a shared goal supported by pro-trade lawmakers and the Trump administration alike," Hatch said.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said Lighthizer's skepticism about trade puts him at odds with several other Trump Cabinet nominees who supported the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. Trump opposed the deal and it's likely to be scrapped once he takes office.
"Lighthizer is very knowledgeable about both technical trade policy and the ways of Washington, but what sets him aside among high-level Republican trade experts is that for decades his views have been shaped by the pragmatic outcomes of trade agreements and policies rather than fealty to any particular ideology or theory," said Wallach, whose organization also opposes TPP.
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