Trump appoints pre-WTO Reagan official as Trade Representative

The new top trade diplomat has made a career in fighting for tariffs.

President-elect Donald Trump has reached back to the Reagan administration – before the establishment of the World Trade Organisation – to find his Trade Representative.

Robert (Bob) Lighthizer is a veteran trade lawyer with a background in acting for US companies against their overseas competitors. As trade representative, he will take the lead on negotiating international trade agreements.

Mr Lighthizer, whose appointment was widely predicted, was a deputy USTR during the Reagan administration.

He joins a wider trade team that includes Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, economist Peter Navarro, who has long opposed Chinese trade practices, and Dan DiMicco, a former steel industry executive.

This group will advance the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policies of restricting imports and forcing US-based companies to end their offshore manufacturing.

Just yesterday, Mr Trump tweeted, “General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to US car dealers-tax free across border. Make in USA or pay big border tax!”

GM says it builds only the hatchback version of the Chevrolet Cruze “for global markets in Mexico, with a small number sold in the US.”

At the same time Ford says it has scrapped plans for a new small-car factory in Mexico. Mr Trump has long criticised Ford’s plans to build the new $US1.6 billion assembly plant.

Instead, Ford says it will now make small cars in an existing Mexican factory and invest $US700 million in a Michigan facility that will build electric vehicles.

Earlier, heating and air-conditioner giant Carrier agreed to can its proposed shift of a manufacturing facility to Mexico to take advantage of lower costs.

Lighthizer’s background
After serving in the Reagan administration, Mr Lighthizer has spent three decades as a trade lawyer fighting for punitive tariffs on overseas companies.

These have included Mr Lighthizer working with Mr DiMicco for tariffs to defend the US steel industry against Asian imports.

Like Mr Navarro, Mr Lighthizer is a staunch critic of China and in 2010 suggested that running afoul of the regular rules of the WTO or provoking retaliation from China might be acceptable if Beijing continues to violate trade norms.

“One must ask whether potential retaliation from China really would or could even remotely offset the benefits to the United States of more aggressive trade measures,” he said in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

A flavour for future policies comes from the Trump transition team in announcing Mr Lighthizer’s appointment. It recalls the Reagan administration’s series of bilateral trade deals before the WTO was created to advance multilateralism.

“These agreements were uniformly tough and frequently resulted in significant reductions in the shipment of unfairly traded imports into the United States,” the transition team announcement says.

These deals had a significant strategic function during the Cold War and differ from later deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“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,” Mr. Lighthizer said in a statement released by Mr Trump’s team.

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