Trump's new trade guru may actually be the adult in the room

The appointment this week of yet another protectionist to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s nascent economic team is being met with an unusual reaction on both sides of the aisle in Washington: a little relief, and a tiny glimmer of optimism.

Robert Lighthizer, a former Ronald Reagan administration official tapped by Trump to be the U.S. trade representative, will join a pair of free trade skeptics. Wilbur Ross, a Wall Street corporate raider, will coordinate trade policy as commerce secretary, while Peter Navarro, a China-bashing economist, will run a new National Trade Council. All three, like Trump, take aim at the free trade regime that has helped reshape the global economy in the last few decades, especially at what they see as China’s unfair gaming of the system to the detriment of the U.S. economy.

But Lighthizer, who will nominally be in charge of prickly negotiations with trading partners, stands out from Trump’s other picks. He has offered a more nuanced diagnosis of what ails America’s economy, and he has a track record of trying to fix what’s broken without starting a trade war. If one person could actually deliver on some of Trump’s promises to bring back American jobs and push back against countries that break the rules, former colleagues say, it’s Lighthizer.

“I think he’s a really good pick. He’s going to come in here and give Trump trade policies that are realistic [and] consistent with law,” William Krist, a former trade negotiator in the Jimmy Carter and Reagan administrations, told Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, some rust-belt Democrats who share Trump’s concerns about the perils of free trade seem enthused by Lighthizer. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Lighthizer was capable of carrying out Trump’s policies, “including withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiating NAFTA, and resetting the U.S.-China trade relationship.”

Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump’s economic policies among Democrats, appears ready to give Lighthizer a chance. “We need to dramatically reorient our trade policy so it helps working families, not giant multinational corporations. I plan to ask Mr. Lighthizer whether he shares that goal and has a plan for achieving it,” Warren said.

Lighthizer’s fight against trade violations doesn’t always go his way. His negotiated agreements to limit steel dumping, for instance, were eventually found to violate WTO rules. But he thinks some form of that playbook, combining negotiations with a more aggressive use of existing legal remedies, could be used to push back a lot more against Chinese abuses than the last two U.S. administrations have done.

As Trump’s economic team and his trade policies start to take shape, even Democrats seem appreciative that Lighthizer carries a scalpel, and not a sledgehammer, to fix what he views as the ills of trade.

He has “relevant experience and has shown some concerns in areas I share,” Bernstein said. “I’m not optimistic yet. I’m hoping to be optimistic later.”

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