WASHINGTON – He stays out of the limelight but shares President Donald Trump’s mistrust of China and the threat it posed to U.S. economic power.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has emerged as the U.S. strongman in the ongoing trade negotiations, determined to force changes in Beijing’s economic policies.
A day after signing a new free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico after over a year of tough negotiations, Trump tapped the 71-year-old Lighthizer to lead this time the delicate trade talks with Beijing, with perhaps more at stake for the global economy.
Trump previously entrusted that mission to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Without success.
The title of US Trade Representative makes him a full member of the “Cabinet,” which is to say the government gathered around the U.S. president and the U.S. representative in the World Organization Trade.
And Lighthizer is a veteran of trade negotiations, having served as deputy USTR under Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and dealt with Japan, the trade power at the time.
Like Trump, Lighthizer believes free trade cannot be unfettered and must be reciprocal.
In the talks with China, the objectives are clear: to force the Asian giant to put an end to trade policies the U.S. deems “unfair,” especially the theft or forced transfer of American technology, and state subsidies for industry.
The countries agreed to a 90-day truce through March 1, but without at agreement, Trump will continue to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the United States.
“Technology is the most important advantage that Americans have economically,” Lighthizer said in a recent, and rare, television interview.
“We will protect that technology and get additional market access from China. If that can be done the president wants us to do it. If not we’ll have tariffs.”
Lighthizer will not be satisfied with promises. He wants actions.
Unlike Trump who revels the spotlight, Lighthizer keeps a low profile.
During negotiations with Canada and Mexico his appearances were rare, his speeches parsimonious, his press releases distilled.
He makes it a point of honor not to expose in public what is happening behind the scenes.
Lighthizer comes from an affluent family in Ashtabula, Ohio, an important port on Lake Erie. It was used for coal and ore transport at the end of the 19th century, and the town’s decline contributed to his skepticism about globalization and its drawbacks, according to relatives cited by The New York Times.
Prior to being named USTR in May 2017, Lighthizer, a father of two, was a partner in the Skadden law firm where he was a specialist in international trade law for more than 30 years.
Imposing stature, piercing gray-blue eyes, he is described as a man as “grumpy” in private as in public.
“He’s very particular. Bombastic at times,” said an official close to the U.S.-Canada-Mexico talks. But he is “also charming, with a great sense of humor” and “tremendously respected his strong intellect.”
Like many of the Washington elite, Lighthizer attended Georgetown University both as an undergraduate and for law school.