President-elect Donald Trump said Tuesday that he intends to nominate Robert Lighthizer as his U.S. trade representative, potentially signaling a major overhaul of U.S. trade policy once Trump takes office.
Lighthizer has long advocated a tougher stand on trade with China, which is in line with Trump's campaign rhetoric.
Lighthizer, 69, was deputy U.S. trade representative under former President Ronald Reagan during a time of ferocious trade wars with Japan. He has spent the past three decades as a Washington, D.C., lawyer primarily representing U.S. steelmakers in trade cases.
He would replace Michael Froman, who led negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal devised to link the economies of the U.S. and 11 other Pacific nations. Trump says the TPP would take away American jobs and has vowed to pull out of the deal. He has also threatened to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, hammer out new bilateral deals and slap punitive tariffs on a number of U.S. trading partners seen as violating trade rules.
Lighthizer gained plenty of experience negotiating tough bilateral trade deals on everything from steel to grain during his time in the Reagan administration, according to a statement from Trump's office. The president-elect says Lighthizer will do an "amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity."
One target would be China, which Lighthizer has accused of unfair trade practices.
He wrote in 2010 congressional testimony that years of passivity had allowed the U.S.-China trade deficit to grow "to the point where it is widely recognized as a major threat to our economy." Going forward, he wrote, U.S. policymakers needed to take a more aggressive approach in dealing with China.
Lighthizer won't be the lone voice on trade in the Trump administration. Peter Navarro, widely considered a China hawk, will head up a new trade council. Trump's pick for commerce secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, also could play a role on trade policy.
Lighthizer's nomination quickly drew praise from many Democrats calling for a change in U.S. trade policy. Richard Neal, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, called Lighthizer a skilled negotiator whose nomination could "signal a welcome move in a new direction for the Republican Party." Still, Neal acknowledged that many Republicans are advocates of free trade deals, saying Lighthizer's ability to change policy will depend on whether he is "able to overcome the resistance he is likely to face within his party."