Nominee to head U.S. trade negotiations defends Trump, criticizes China

Stacks of containers are unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles last year.
(Christina House / For The Times)

President Trump’s nominee to be the top U.S. trade negotiator, getting a hearing before the Senate after a long delay, passionately defended his future White House boss against concerns that the president’s business interests abroad could compromise America’s trade objectives.

Robert Lighthizer, named to be the U.S. trade representative, is well regarded by many on both sides of the aisle as a knowledgeable, aggressive and seasoned trade negotiator with deep experience in the private sector and government.

He was introduced at the hearing Tuesday as a “bulldog” by Bob Dole, the respected former senator for whom Lighthizer once worked, and there was every indication that he will eventually win full Senate confirmation.


Yet the hearing made clear the tough job that Lighthizer will have. It exposed differences within the Republican Party on the Trump administration’s trade approach as well as lingering concerns about the president’s refusal to liquidate his private businesses around the world and the potential conflict of interest that his holdings might present.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) began her questioning by noting that Trump had not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator as soon as he took office. Then she pointed out that the Chinese government had recently approved 38 trademark applications for the Trump brand that could be used to help any potential properties and other businesses in China.

“How will you handle the situation,” she asked, noting “the business interests of the president [and] his family in countries where we need to be tough on that country in order to protect American jobs.”

Lighthizer responded that he did not know anything about Trump’s trademarks or about his personal holdings, which are now managed by his sons but still owned by Trump. The family’s businesses include hotels, golf properties and licensing rights in many countries.

“With the time I spent with the president, any suggestion that he would do anything at all that’s not in the national interest, first, middle and last, is just not correct,” Lighthizer said.

“The idea that this president would do anything untoward is so far out of the realm of possibility.”

On China’s currency manipulation, Lighthizer said the decision was up to the Treasury secretary. He added that while China in the past had adjusted its exchange rate to gain an advantage, whether Beijing is doing so now was another question.

Lighthizer’s experience includes having worked as a top staff member on the Senate Finance Committee — the same one questioning him Tuesday — then as deputy trade representative during the Reagan administration. He also has spent many years in the private sector litigating on behalf of American industries, such as steel, as well as some foreign parties.

Along with Trump and Peter Navarro, head of the new White House National Trade Council, Lighthizer shares some harsh criticism of China’s mercantilist activities. On Tuesday he described China as a “good part of the problem” and indicated that the U.S. probably would initiate complaints and use other means to more aggressively fight foreign companies dumping products in the U.S. or being supported by government subsidies.

Lighthizer did not dismiss the World Trade Organization, the international body that resolves disputes, but indicated that the WTO and the current global trading system were not well suited to deal with a big player like China. Last week, the annual report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) on the president’s trade agenda made a similar point.

“I believe he’s going to change the paradigm on China,” Lighthizer said of Trump.

But Trump’s strident criticisms of free trade and threats to levy big tariffs on China and Mexico have many Republicans worried — and that, too, was evident during the hearing.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) told Lighthizer that he disagreed with Navarro’s policy approach that emphasizes lowering the nation’s large trade deficit by taking strict measures to reduce imports. That could result in retaliatory action by trading partners, Toomey said, and leave American consumers with fewer choices.

Lighthizer did not respond to those comments.

One issue that remains unclear is how much influence Lighthizer would have in the White House if confirmed.

Although the USTR has traditionally been the lead negotiator on trade deals and in formulating trade policy, Lighthizer is likely to share that responsibility with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Navarro, as well as others in Trump’s Cabinet who are seen as much more on the side of conventional Republican thinking on trade.

“I’ve noticed that members of the new administration have strong views on trade. Those views aren’t always the same,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said.

During the 2 1/2-hour-long hearing, Lighthizer pledged to fight to protect U.S. intellectual property and to make priorities such matters as Canadian subsidies of lumber and European support for Airbus, the airplane manufacturing consortium that competes with Boeing Co.

Despite support from senators in both parties and agreement on the urgency of having a trade representative in place, it’s uncertain when Lighthizer’s nomination will come up for a full Senate vote.

Tuesday’s hearing was delayed in part because of waiver legislation that some lawmakers said was needed for Lighthizer. The waiver may be required because as a private attorney many years ago, he represented Brazil in a trade dispute with an American industry.

Congressional Democrats have sought to attach the waiver to a measure that would help miners facing the loss of healthcare and retirement benefits.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, condemned the maneuver to hold up an “indisputably qualified” nominee with an “unrelated ransom.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee’s ranking minority member, said Democrats were willing to support the waiver, but said it was vital to provide a “lifeline” to the miners.

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