Can Lighthizer Resolve China Trade War; Tariff Man Robert Lighthizer Is Trump's Brain on Trade. Will His Tough-Talk, No-Nonsense Approach Resolve a Trade Conflict with China-Or Crater Two of the World's Largest Economies?

By Powell, Bill | Newsweek, January 25, 2019 | Go to article overview

Can Lighthizer Resolve China Trade War; Tariff Man Robert Lighthizer Is Trump's Brain on Trade. Will His Tough-Talk, No-Nonsense Approach Resolve a Trade Conflict with China-Or Crater Two of the World's Largest Economies?


Powell, Bill, Newsweek


Byline: Bill Powell

On Donald Trump's first visit to Beijing as president in late 2017, as trade tensions with China were building, the Chinese laid the hospitality on thick. There were tours of the Forbidden City, visits to museums housing priceless antiquities and elaborate banquets with President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leadership. When it came to substance, Beijing signed letters of intent for deals with U.S. companies ostensibly worth $250 billion, and Xi pressed Trump on the value of a series of high-level, biannual talks between Washington and Beijing known as the "strategic and economic dialogue."

Robert Lighthizer, along for the visit as Trump's U.S. trade representative (USTR), was not happy. Begun during the George W. Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama, the SED, as it became known in Washington, was exactly the sort of open- ended gabfest that Beijing loved and Light hizer loathed. He believed these sorts of confabs were designed to string the U.S. along and avoid dealing with the trade problems at hand. "Strategic and economic bullshit," he once called it. After the second day of talks, Lighthizer met with Trump privately. "You're being played," he told the president, according to multiple White House sources. The assessment jibed with Trump's gut instinct as well; he reassured Lighthizer that he would keep trade as the focal point of discussions with Beijing moving forward. Ever since that visit, Lighthizer has become the most influential voice in Trump's ear when it comes to what is arguably the administration's most pressing issue: trade relations with the world's second-largest economy.

To the dismay of Wall Street and much of establishment Washington--neither of which wants to see trade with China seriously disrupted--Trump's inclination is to be tough on Beijing. Policy wonks in both parties love to deride Trump's "instincts" as the impulses of an accidental, know-nothing president. Lighthizer's presence at his side makes that a far more difficult argument.

As far back as 2010--well before trade tensions with China consumed Washington--Lighthizer wrote a lengthy, scathingly detailed and (so it happened) largely prescient piece for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a group mandated by Congress to present an annual report on the security aspects of Washington's economic relations with the People's Republic. He lampooned the wildly rosy assessments of what China's accession to the World Trade Organization would mean for the U.S. economy--and for manufacturing workers in particular. He pointed out the various policies in Beijing that distort trade, penalize foreign companies and tilt the playing field in China toward homegrown companies. He warned of industrial policies that were designed to promote the development of Chinese technology, again at the expense of foreign competitors.

Today, this is standard fare for the policy mills in Washington; seminars and conferences abound at places like the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Brookings Institution mulling what to do about trade with China. Remarkably, there is now widespread consensus at least around the Trump administration's--which is to say, Lighthizer's--diagnosis of the problem. "[It] has quite fairly identified a series of problems in the [trading relationship] with China," acknowledges William Reinsch, a former Clinton administration official who's now a senior adviser at CSIS. How to best respond is another matter.

When Trump appointed Lighthizer, the free trade purists--principally the Fortune 500 and their lobbyists, as well as powerful agriculture interests--knew they had a challenge. In their view, he's a protectionist hack: Lighthizer worked for years as a trade lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the prominent Wall Street law firm where he represented American steel producers in a variety of cases involving unfair trade practices by foreign countries, such as dumping goods below cost in the U. …

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