Robert Lighthizer won Senate approval Thursday to become President Donald Trump’s top trade envoy, finalizing after nearly four months the team dedicated to what has become one of the president’s signature policy issues.
Lighthizer, a former deputy U.S. trade representative who has spent the last two decades defending the domestic steel industry from allegedly unfair foreign competition, was confirmed by a vote of 82-14 after a staggering series of procedural delays in Congress — even though his nomination was relatively uncontroversial.
Now that he’s cleared the Senate — becoming the final Cabinet-level official to win confirmation — Trump’s strategy for reversing a trade dynamic that he believes hurts the average American worker can finally reach full speed. It’s an aggressive agenda that centers around negotiating a better version of the North American Free Trade Agreement and establishing bilateral deals with allies like the United Kingdom and Japan.
Lighthizer will also be tasked with making good on Trump’s campaign promises to act tougher toward China, crack down on enforcement of existing trade deals and bring manufacturing and other industrial-sector jobs back to the U.S., particularly throughout the Rust Belt.
Since Trump has lacked his leading trade representative, “the administration has kind of been shooting blindfolded on trade,” said Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Now, you have someone with a plan who is going to take aim and strike.”
The 24 hours that preceded Lighthizer’s confirmation saw a final political surprise after Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) turned against their party to oppose Lighthizer, who served in the USTR office under the Reagan administration. The two outspoken Republicans said they had concerns about the extent of Lighthizer’s support for free trade and whether he would adequately champion U.S. agricultural interests in future trade negotiations.
And Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) also flipped his support for Lighthizer on Thursday, saying he worried his policies would hurt ranchers and farmers in his home state. “In light of the current agricultural crisis facing much of rural America, if we are not open to new trade opportunities, farmers and ranchers in Colorado and across the country will continue to struggle to make ends meet,” Gardner said in a statement.
But their opposition did little to affect Lighthizer’s path to confirmation, as progressive Democrats like Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) had already publicly supported the veteran trade attorney, who had cleared the Senate Finance Committee unanimously last month.
“I have confidence that Robert Lighthizer will work to pursue a trade agenda that is coherent, constructive, and will deliver for American workers, and I will support his nomination,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member of the powerful Finance Committee that vetted Lighthizer, said in floor remarks shortly before the final vote.
Some Democrats joined with McCain and Sasse in opposing Lighthizer’s nomination, most notably Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who sought to tie his vote to the fallout surrounding Trump’s decision to sack FBI Director James Comey this week.
“Agree w Nom Lighthizer on trade but voted no after what happened this wk,” Schumer posted on Twitter minutes before the confirmation vote was announced. “GOP must agree to [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions & [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein mtg w full Senate.”
Lighthizer, who was announced as Trump’s choice for USTR on Jan. 3., takes office in the Winder Building with the foremost task of taking the lead for the U.S. in a renegotiation of NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, a policy prize that the win-hungry president is eager to seize. After months of pointed rhetoric geared toward gaining bargaining table leverage for Trump, businesses and industry coalitions in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. want to move past the tweets and posturing and hear in formal talks what exactly the Trump administration wants from a reboot.
Despite heavy attention on his plans to reopen the agreement, which Trump pledged to do on the campaign trail, the administration has been statutorily barred from meeting with Canadian and Mexican officials until Lighthizer could be confirmed and hold meetings with congressional advisory committees from both chambers. Once those meetings happen, the administration will send formal notification to Congress that it plans to reopen the agreement, kicking off a 90-day consultation period before talks can formally begin.
That timeline puts the first round of trilateral talks somewhere in late summer, giving officials a tight window in which to make any substantive changes before Mexico’s stated goal of wrapping up the process by the end of the year.
Though widely considered a possibly-too-ambitious goal by many trade experts and former officials, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acknowledged the timeline earlier this week and said U.S. officials would be working to conclude talks “as soon as possible.”
"Once we get going, I promise you this administration will not be a source of delay,” he said during remarks at the State Department.
Beyond NAFTA, Lighthizer is likely to make his international debut as U.S. trade representative in just over a week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s trade ministers’ summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. The two-day meeting of APEC trade ministers will provide Lighthizer with his first opportunity to meet with his counterparts — and, perhaps more notably, to defend his boss’ move at the start of his presidency to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The proposed Pacific Rim trade deal is expected to be a major topic of conversation in Hanoi, with the ministers from the 11 other TPP nations — the United States excluded — planning to meet on the sidelines to discuss potential ways to move the agreement forward without its most powerful member.
Lighthizer’s confirmation also solidifies the administration’s trade-focused triumvirate, joining Ross and Peter Navarro, director of the White House’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, to give Trump what officials have described as a one-two-three punch on trade issues.
Lighthizer’s role differs somewhat from the others, however, in that he is Congress’ main point of contact on trade policy — a point that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) emphasized previously in urging support for his quick confirmation.
“In order for Congress to have an effective voice in shaping our nation’s trade agenda, we need to have a fully staffed and functional USTR office,” the Finance Committee chairman said in floor remarks before the confirmation vote. “This delay has only served to weaken Congress’ position in trade policy and hampered our ability to provide the new administration with substantive input."