LAWRENCE — U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer said President Donald Trump succeeded in convincing skeptical Republicans and Democrats the trade imbalance with China was a national security threat and that American workers had to be at forefront of trade negotiations.
Lighthizer, who served as an aide to U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, said the transition in thinking on trade with China would likely endure as a feature of future work by the U.S. government.
No longer will it be acceptable, he said, for U.S. administrations to blindly work toward policy that made goods cheaper for American consumers through exportation of jobs to China and elsewhere at the cost of domestic manufacturing capacity.
“There’s a realization we’ve got to take care of ourselves and we had to reset that relationship,” he said during a video appearance Thursday at the Dole Insitute of Politics. “That’s what I’m proudest of. It was by no means apparent it was going to happen and in many ways it was against all odds. Everyone sort of said this is all crazy.”
Lighthizer was sworn in as Trump’s U.S. trade representative in 2017. He led negotiations on updating NAFTA and on major agreements with China and Japan. Previously, he worked for Dole in the U.S. Senate and as a trade official in the Reagan administration.
He said he hadn’t engaged with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. He said he worked daily with Democrats in Washington, D.C., and the president’s refusal to concede the election and seek reversal of the outcome in several states wouldn’t be damaging to the trade office if Biden was sworn in as president in January.
“The answer is no. I’ve not done that,” Lighthizer said. “I work very closely with Democrats. None of this is going to be a problem for us.”
He said Trump from the beginning focused trade policy reform on serving interests of working people. U.S. trade policy in the 15 years prior to Trump’s election adhered to an economic model that cost 5 million domestic manufacturing jobs and closed 60,000 U.S. factories, he said.
Trump concluded the trade deficit with China had ballooned to an unsustainable level and wasn’t in the best interests of millions of Americans without a college education needing good jobs, he said.
“We let economists dictate what our trade policy is and what the objective was — efficiency in the market,” Lighthizer said. “An economist would say, ‘Well, we’re more efficient and T-shirts are cheaper and we all have televisions. It doesn’t matter whether they’re made in Korea or China or the United States.’ His (Trump) view is we should start with the proposition that the objective of economic policy … should be helping working people.”
Under Trump, he said, the goal was to lower the trade deficit and bring jobs back to the United States. The trend in both areas was positive, he said, but COVID-19 unraveled domestic economic gains.
“It’s like turning a cruise ship. It takes time. What we did, we changed the way people politically think about trade. It’s a very powerful, successful thing that he did,” Lighthizer said.