Wilbur Ross is poised to play an outsized role in the Trump administration -- something that may make for an interesting Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, where he will cast himself as "pro-sensible trade."
Ross, the president-elect's nominee for Commerce Secretary, is set to appear before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation today. The 79-year-old billionaire once described as the "king of bankruptcy" will likely face a barrage of questioning on his own stances and record as well as those of the president-elect on items like trade, business and jobs.
"I've made my livelihood for over five decades dealing in international commerce," he will tell the committee, according to his prepared opening statement. "I am very well aware of the issues many companies face and I'm sensitive to both the issues abroad and the issues here at home."
"Because Ross is so close to this president-elect, I think you're going to see Commerce have a more forward role than it has in the last two administrations," said Kara Ward, legislative and government affairs counsel at law firm Venable LLP and former attorney at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Ross is a long-time Trump ally and served as a top economic adviser to his presidential campaign.
The president-elect has indicated he will lean on Ross for trade policy, along with White House Trade Council pick Peter Navarro and U.S. Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer. In statement announcing his decision to nominate Ross, Trump called him "one of the greatest negotiators I have ever met."
"I am pro trade. But I am pro sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base," Ross will tell the Senate committee.
Trade is likely to be a major item on the agenda at Wednesday's hearing, but Senators might not be inclined to challenge Ross or the incoming administration's positioning.
"I don't know if the committee's going to go after Wilbur Ross on Donald Trump's proposed trade policies," said Matt Gold, adjunct professor of law at Fordham University and former deputy assistant trade representative under the Obama administration. "A lot of those policies are politically popular, and many of those Senators don't want to be seen by their own constituencies as being against them."
Trump plans to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and potentially renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many voters support.
Ross, like a number of Trump's top administration picks, hails from the private sector and has limited policy experience.
He built a name for himself investing in distressed companies, first at Rothschild Inc. and then at his own firm WL Ross & Co., which he sold to Invesco (IVZ) in 2006 for $375 million. He currently serves as chairman and chief strategy officer at WL Ross.
U.S. Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has voiced his support for Ross' nomination. In a statement, the South Dakota Republican said he expects Ross to bring "exceptional real-world business experience" to the Department of Commerce and promised "strong support for keeping a successful entrepreneur at the helm of an agency charged with keeping our nation competitive."
Ross is a "sophisticated global player with experience in operating businesses and manufacturing as well as investing," said Cameron Kerry, senior counsel at Sidley Austin, LLC and former general counsel and acting secretary of the Commerce Department, in a recent post for the Brookings Institution, highlighting his deep experience in China, Korea and Japan.
He noted, however, that Ross will face some big questions during his hearing, trade-related and otherwise.
China is likely to be a major topic of conversation. While Navarro and Lighthizer are rather hawkish on the eastern superpower, Ross' approach is less clear. As a recent Politico profile noted, he has a long and complex history with the country, despite a more recent antagonistic turn.
"Mr. Ross has great experience with China," said Mickey Kantor, former trade representative in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1996 and Secretary of Commerce from 1996 to 1997, in a recent interview with TheStreet. "He has been a great supporter of a positive U.S.-China relationship and can be quite helpful. I hope he would reach back to where he was a year ago and be a supporter of enhancing that relationship."
Financial disclosures and potential conflicts of interest will be on deck as well. Ross' Senate hearing was postponed last week because of a delay in submitting paperwork to the Office of Government Ethics.
Ross sits on the boards of a number of major companies, according to data gathered by TheStreet's relationship mapping service BoardEx, including ArcelorMittal (MT) , the world's largest steel company, the Bank of Cyprus, Exco Resources (XCO) , Sun National Bank (SNBC) and Nexeo Solutions (NXEO) .
He has not yet stepped down from his positions but according to a letter released by the OGE will resign from them all upon confirmation.
"Ross will be barred from any involvement in party matters in which he has a current interest or has previously been involved, and from issues involving sectors in which he holds an interest worth more than $50,000 or affecting companies in which he had a role in the past two years," Kerry said. "How much will such restrictions required by law limit Ross's ability to perform his duties as Secretary of Commerce and the role envisioned for him in a Trump administration?"
The Commerce Department comprised of 12 bureaus, including the International Trade Administration, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It accounts for approximately 36% of public federal data.
While the focus Wednesday will likely be on Ross' trade-related responses and, perhaps, his financial ties, Senators will likely also inquire about the Commerce Department's other activities. And voters will be wise to pay attention to his responses there, too, not just in the immediate future but over the long haul.
"Wilbur Ross may end up having a lower role in trade than Trump thinks he'll have," said Gold. "Once he gets into a room with people that better understand the implications of violating trade agreements and the difficulties of renegotiating trade agreements, Wilbur Ross may not be so excited about being the lead trade policy person for this administration."