'Expect Change': Robert Lighthizer Is Trump's Hardball-Playing China Trade Negotiator

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer discusses the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin look on Oct. 1, 2018. Lighthizer is now the chief U.S. negotiator in trade talks with China.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer discusses the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin look on Oct. 1, 2018. Lighthizer is now the chief U.S. negotiator in trade talks with China.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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When U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, in the 1950s, it was a thriving port town on Lake Erie where everyone who wanted one found a job. Ships brought in iron ore destined for the steel mills of Pennsylvania, and left with coal from the mines of Appalachia.

But as steel and coal have declined, the Ashtabula of Lighthizer's childhood has disappeared, taking a lot of jobs with it.

As a doctor's son, Lighthizer grew up in relative comfort compared to a lot of other kids in Ashtabula and he would leave town to go to college.

But those who know him say his experience in a blue-collar town, and its long decline since then, helped shape his views on trade.

"He grew up in a working-class town and he knows how people have suffered by losing jobs, and I suspect that that's part of why he went into that part of the legal profession," says Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers.

Now Lighthizer is leading President Trump's negotiations with China for what is shaping up to be the final round of trade talks that could change the destinies of the world's two largest economies.

Lighthizer has spent his long career defending American manufacturers against foreign competitors and warning that trade pacts such as NAFTA would cost the U.S. jobs.

Now, as lead negotiator in the China trade talks, the 71-year-old Lighthizer has an opportunity to do something about it.

"Expect change, expect new approaches, and expect action," he told a Center for Strategic and International Studies audience in 2017.

A longtime Washington attorney with a deep knowledge of trade law, Lighthizer has a modest, unassuming manner that couldn't be much different from that of his boss, President Trump.

But if he lacks Trump's pugnacious style, Lighthizer shares most of his hardball views on trade, a fact pointed out by the president last October, when he unveiled the revised version of NAFTA known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

"Bob Lighthizer is great. I've heard it for years. I said, if I ever do this, I want to get Lighthizer to represent us, 'cause he felt the way I did," Trump said.

As far back as 1997, Lighthizer was warning that China "is not a true market economy" and didn't play by the rules. If China was allowed into the World Trade Organization, he wrote, "virtually no manufacturing job in this country will be safe."

Like Trump, he has argued that tariffs and quotas are a time-tested way of protecting American jobs when foreign countries engage in unfair trading practices.

"For most of its 157-year history, the Republican Party has been the party of building domestic industry by using trade policy to promote U.S. exports and fend off unfairly traded imports. American conservatives have had that view for even longer," Lighthizer wrote in 2011.

Until Trump's election, these views placed Lighthizer far outside the mainstream in Washington, where one administration after another has promoted the economic benefits of trade.

"The view in Washington has been that opening up trade is good for the United States and good for the other countries involved. Lighthizer is a professed economic nationalist. He's very much about what's in it for the United States," says Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lighthizer's role as a heretic in the church of free trade has earned him plenty of fans in the labor movement and among left-wing critics of trade, such as Lori Wallach, director and founder of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

She first crossed paths with Lighthizer in the 1990s, during the original debate over NAFTA, which both opposed as a job-killer that would drive down U.S. wages.

"We both were the odd fellows out, he from the right, me from the left," Wallach recalls.

"Back then, listening to each other, I suspect we both had the same reaction, which was: 'That's kind of scary! That right-wing, Reagan-administration Republican trade guy, is saying things that I 70-percent agree with!' And I have a feeling he thought, 'Wait a minute! That Ralph Nader, Public Citizen, tree-hugging consumer group lady is saying things that I 70-percent agree with!' "

But even those who don't share Lighthizer's views on trade express a grudging respect for him.

"He's bright, he's experienced, he's confident. He certainly understands these issues backwards and forwards," says former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who negotiated NAFTA under the Clinton administration and says he disagrees with many of Lighthizer's views.

As an attorney in Washington, Lighthizer worked for the steel industry, handling dumping cases against foreign competitors.

He also served briefly in the Reagan administration, working on a successful effort to force Japan to limit its exports to the U.S.

"I think the Japan experience told him the only way you make progress is through threats that you're prepared to carry out to restrict access to the world's largest market, which is the United States," says Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Trump administration is now trying to apply the same strategy to China, betting that it can pressure Beijing to address longstanding complaints about practices such as intellectual property theft.

Lighthizer has his work cut out for him, Alden notes. After all, China has a long history of resisting pressure to reform its economy.

"The problem is that what Lighthizer is asking the Chinese to do is quite radical, to significantly reduce the role of the Chinese state and hence the Communist Party in directing Chinese economic development. And it's not at all clear that the Chinese leadership is prepared to do that," Alden says.

He also worries that Trump, in his eagerness to reach a deal with Beijing, could impede the negotiations Lighthizer is heading.

Trump pretty much left the details of last year's NAFTA talks up to Lighthizer. The president has taken a more direct role in the negotiations with Beijing.

"[Trump] continues to tweet about how much progress is being made, that a good deal is likely, that a big deal is likely. He's got this great friendship with President Xi. He's personally going to bring home the deal," Alden says.

Recently, Trump has hinted he may extend the March 1 deadline for completing the talks, which can only reduce Lighthizer's leverage over Beijing, Alden says.

Lighthizer has a last, best chance to change a global trading system that has cost towns like Ashtabula jobs. The risk now is that the man who appointed him could undercut his efforts.

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