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Trump Nominates Robert Lighthizer As U.S. Trade Representative


During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was scathing in his criticism of U.S. trade policy, policy that had been supported by Republicans for decades. Today Trump announced Robert Lighthizer as his pick to be the U.S. trade representative. Lighthizer is an establishment Republican. But as NPR's John Ydstie reports, he doesn't toe the traditional party line on trade.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often sounded more like a Democrat union leader than a Republican. He said he would tear up NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and be quick to tax imports if trading partners misbehaved. Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who's a longtime liberal opponent of trade agreements like NAFTA, says Trump's nominee, Robert Lighthizer, also has a healthy skepticism about the free-trade doctrine.

LORI WALLACH: What has always set him apart from other Republican trade experts is that he has never really been based on ideology or theory but rather the actual outcomes of different policies.

YDSTIE: Outcomes, says Wallach, that protected American companies and workers. In the 1980s, Lighthizer was a deputy U.S. trade representative under Ronald Reagan. More recently, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, he argued the Republican Party should not blindly embrace free-trade dogma. But the Trump campaign rhetoric on trade has made some free-trade advocates nervous. Derek Scissors is a resident fellow and trade expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

DEREK SCISSORS: This is not going to be a conventional Republican administration. There are going to be steps which could be protectionist steps. Or they could be sensible adjustments of U.S. trade policy. But it's not going to be conventional.

YDSTIE: Scissors says he supports sensible adjustments but not a radical departure.

SCISSORS: There are things in U.S. trade policy that should be improved. And that's on the table. Then there is an abandonment of an American commitment to free trade, which should not occur and which would be very harmful to the U.S. That also seems to be on the table.

YDSTIE: Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller has said that Wilbur Ross, Trump's nominee for commerce secretary, will actually take the lead on formulating trade policy. Free-trade skeptic Lori Wallach says exactly where the billionaire Ross comes down on trade is a big question.

WALLACH: Ross has supported trade policies, basically, that suit his business interests and opposed others that didn't. And it remains to be seen if Ross will see the American worker as his client or he'll see big businesses as his client.

YDSTIE: Wallach is concerned that other Trump cabinet appointees with corporate backgrounds could also convince the president-elect to move away from his populist positions on trade. She says that makes Lighthizer's nomination very consequential. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.