Robert Lighthizer's appointment as United States Trade Representative could bring a dose of actual experience to the Trump administration on trade.
President-elect Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Lighthizer, former deputy U.S. Trade Representative during the Reagan administration and partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, as America's top representative on trade earlier this week. Former trade officials say the 69-year-old native Ohioan will bring a level of know-how to an incoming administration with a less-than-conventional approach to trade.
"What he brings to the table is going to be a reality check," said Matt Gold, adjunct professor of law at Fordham University and former deputy assistant trade representative under the Obama administration. "He's the only guy who gets what legal obligations we have and how critical the international trading system is to the global economy, how easily it can be collapsed."
Lighthizer boasts extensive experience in the public and private sector. During the Reagan administration, he was involved in the negotiation of two dozen bilateral trade agreements.
"Bob Lighthizer is totally qualified to be U.S. Trade Representative," said Mickey Kantor, former trade representative in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1996 and Secretary of Commerce from 1996 to 1997. "I hope that his influence will be somewhat helpful in looking at trade in a balanced fashion."
At Skadden, he has focused on trade litigation, policy advice and legislative initiatives for a number of industries, including manufacturing, agriculture, technology and financial services, according to the firm's website. He has also been the lead counsel in numerous antidumping cases.
John Veroneau, former deputy trade representative under George W. Bush, said Lighthizer has "an important historical perspective on the strengths and weakness of existing trade enforcement tools," in a statement to the New York Law Journal.
Lighthizer's stance on China has raised some eyebrows. He penned a 1999 op-ed warning of the dangers of it joining the World Trade Organization. (It joined in 2001.) He has argued that China has failed to live up to WTO commitments and suggested U.S. policymakers take a more aggressive stance, strictly enforcing trade laws, providing safeguard relief and litigating new claims against the country.
"We should ask the common sense question of whether Chinese retaliation could even remotely offset the potential benefits that aggressive trade measures might deliver," he said at a 2010 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission hearing.
But Lighthizer's attitude toward China isn't anomalous. Kantor said both Democratic and Republican administrations, particularly the Obama administration, have been quite aggressive with regard to China. The Obama administration "has brought cases to the WTO and has won them all," he said.
Lighthizer might be a balancing force for Trump, for Peter Navarro, the fierce China critic who will head the newly-created White House Trade Council, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, for incoming Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
"The U.S.-China relationship is the most important relationship in the world, and it needs to be enhanced, not torn apart," said Kantor.
Much of Lighthizer's private practice has been tied to the steel industry, and he has represented various U.S. companies in industry trade cases, including Bethlehem Steel, National Steel and U.S. Steel.
"He's an advocate for fair trade," said Robert Scott, director of trade and manufacturing policy research at Washington think tank the Economic Policy Institute who has crossed paths with Lighthizer in trade cases on several occasions.
Lighthizer is known for his somewhat protectionist leanings. In a 2008 op-ed, he argued that free trade is not necessarily a pillar of conservatism, and in a 2011 column, he cited historical and contemporary "skepticism toward pure free-trade dogma" among Republican leaders, including Trump (long before his presidential bid).
"He's really known for trying to promote American business and trying to take down what he considers unfair impediments to American companies doing business overseas," said Stefanos Roulakis, attorney at law firm Blank Rome who focuses on international and maritime trade.
But concerns over Lighthizer's protectionism could be overblown. "He's been a supporter of almost all, if not all, the trade agreements we have reached in both Republican and Democratic administrations," Kantor said.
To be sure, there are no guarantees Lighthizer will have Trump's ear, especially given that his background does not indicate he is entirely on board with the president-elect's protectionist attitude towards trade. President Obama has largely leaned on Michael Froman for help formulating trade policy, since his appointment as trade representative in 2013 and also before, when Froman was Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs.
"Ross, Navarro and Lighthizer will all share authority, and we'll see how that sort of [arrangement] crystalizes," said Roulakis.
But as Trump and other advisers consider trade policy moving forward, at least Lighthizer knows the rules.
"Lighthizer's going to be the guy in the room who's going to be telling them which existing trade treaty obligations they're going to be violating with each new policy they implement," said Gold.