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Week’s appointments give Trump administration a working trade team

Late February Senate confirmations and ad-hoc appointments now give the US a reasonably clear, though possibly temporary, senior trade team.

Wilbur Ross, former owner of International Textile Group, was confirmed 72-27 by the US Senate as Commerce Secretary on February 27, with strong support from Democrats. The Office of the US Trade Representative website now lists Stephen Vaughn as  Acting US Trade Representative. Vaughn is the Office’s full-time General Counsel. There are now clearly designated leaders in each of the three departments whose head requires Senate cnfirmation

Commerce Secretary: Wilbur Ross

The exceptionally high Senate vote for Ross from Opposition Democrats came partly because of an endorsement from the United Steelworkers union for his efforts in restructuring bankrupt steel companies in the early 2000s, which saved numerous plants and thousands of jobs.

Though US law requires the US Trade Representative to be the lead negotiator in trade negotiations, Ross appears likely to be steering the US renegotiation with Mexico.  In the first few days after his confirmation, he began offering insight into his priorities

Treasury Secretary: Steven Mnuchin

Steven Mnuchin’s appointment as Treasury Secretary was confirmed on  February 13. Mnuchin has consistently declined to endorse Trump’s convictions either that China is a currency manipulator or that currency is the main trade issue where the US has legitimate differences with China.   Since Trump has put currency manipulation at the top of his complaints about China, this disagreement at the very least postpones most policy discussion about dealing with Chinese trade challenges until publication of the Treasury’s regular April report on currency manipulation.

US Trade Representative: awaiting confirmation

The confirmation of Trump’s third Cabinet-level nominee – Robert Lighthizer – is not expected until late March at the earliest. Lighthizer has previously done advisory work for foreign governments, and US law bans such people from the job.  Congress has waived this ban just once – in 1993 – but this may be a lot more difficult or time consuming in today’s poisonous political environment.

Stephen Vaughn, the designated Acting US Trade Representative, has spent – like Lighthizer –  much of his career representing the steel industry. He appears so far to have concentrated on he work leading up to the department’s March 1 provisional Trade Agenda.  The bulk of the new policies indicated in this concerned America’s relationship with the World Trade Organisation, and Vaughn appears to have led USTR staff in laying out ways to move away from using the WTO dispute settlement system.

Director, National Trade Council: Peter Navarro

The fourth key direct report to the President, Navarro  is also the director of the National Trade Council, assistant to the president, and director of trade and industrial policy – but not accountable to Congress. He has been filling the vacuum created by  the absence of a Commerce Secretary and USTR. The National Trade Council was invented by Trump before his inauguration, and Navarro is likely to have been the main director of the USTR’s WTO-bashing March 1 report to Congress

Who’ll do what?

The balance of power between the four is likely to fluctuate – and Mnuchin is likely to be far more involved in America’s debates over public spending and  tax system than the details of trade policy. The likelihood is that Ross and Lighthizer will take over the traditional roles in leading the Commerce Department and USTR, leaving some questions over the emerging role of Navarro.

Trump committed during his campaign to create an “American desk” at Commerce consolidating all trade policy making. But by mid-December, this commitment was denied by his team. However, Jason Miller, then Trump’s spopkesman, said in December that Ross would play a much larger role on trade policy than previous commerce secretaries because of his relationship with Mr Trump and his role in shaping the president-elect’s trade message.  He added that “Secretary Ross will be our administration’s leader on setting many of our trade priorities,”

Trump’s Administration has already been damaged by more tension between White House staff than normal, and it is unclear how Lightizer and Ross will work with Navarro.

Navarro has refused to be drawn on the issue, saying merely “My role is to serve the President and help advance the mission of standing up for American workers and domestic manufacturers against unfair trade practices.”

With the new focus this Administration brings to trade, it looks likely that Congress will want most live issues – like renegotiating deals – to be channeled through Ross or Lightizer, who will both be accountable to Congress.

Lighthizer, Ross and Lighthizer’s prospective general counsel, Vaughn, share backgrounds in steel trade negotiations, where the US has been especially active over the years in fighting imports. So has Gilbert Kaplan, rumoured to be offered the under secretary for international trade role in Ross’ Commerce Department

It is not self-evident that fighting steel imports has been helpful to the US economy generally.