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Trump Trade Rep Backs 'America First' Trade Policy at Senate Hearing

Emily Stewart

United States Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer is on board with the president's America first approach to trade.

Lighthizer, who served as deputy U.S. Trade Representative under the Reagan administration, said in prepared remarks delivered at his Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he agrees with President Trump's approach to trade and will seek to "do better" in negotiating trade agreements and achieving stronger enforcement of trade laws. He also gave nod to the bilateral trade agreements the Trump administration has indicated it plans to seek.

"I agree with President Trump that we should have an America first trade policy and that we can do better in negotiating our trade agreements and stronger in enforcing our trade laws," he said. "I further believe we need an international trade system that functions the way it was negotiated and that the United States must be ready to work with like-minded trading partners to ensure fair trade and to encourage market efficiency."

Lighthizer, 69, spoke of his experience in both the public and private realms.

He talked about "exciting times" negotiating trade agreements, most of which were bilateral, under the Reagan administration and his work on agricultural issues, industrial issues, services and trade policy. He also discussed his most recent experience as a partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

"The vast, vast majority of my work has been representing U.S. manufacturing companies opposing unfair trade in this market and opposing the noneconomic expansion of production capacity around the world," he said. "As many of you know, I have written and talked often about the challenges facing U.S. companies and workers and have espoused strong enforcement of our trade laws."

Former Senator Bob Dole spoke to the committee on Lighthizer's behalf, calling it a "singular honor" to introduce Lighthizer, who worked for him in the 1970s and 1980s and on his presidential campaign in 1996. "I've always felt that the trade representative was a little underrated in the pecking order of the cabinet," he said. Dole, 93, also joked he is "older than the total age of all of the committee."

During the hearing, Lighthizer fielded questions on a number of matters from committee members.

He acknowledged that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Trump administration withdrew from, would have benefitted the agriculture industry and vowed to help the sector in other ways. He also said he believes Trump will "change the paradigm" on China and batted down concerns raised by Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow regarding Trump's business interests in China and around the world.

He also discussed NAFTA when pressed by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa. He said he fully understands "what's at stake" in renegotiating the deal and said the administration had not yet decided whether it prefers a trilateral agreement or two separate bilateral ones.

"The United States and Mexico both need each other economically a lot," he said.

Lighthizer declined to weigh in on the Export-Import Bank when asked by Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell about the matter. He said he was waiting for instructions from the administration on the "sensitive issue."

Trump announced his intention to appoint Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative in January, a maneuver applauded by former trade reps under Obama and Clinton. If confirmed, Lighthizer will work alongside Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, and Peter Navarro, the head of the White House Trade Council, to develop and implement trade policies.

Cantwell on Tuesday asked Lighthizer who would be in charge among the three. He told her they would work collaboratively. "I fully expect to have the full statutory authority that the Congress provides," he said.

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--Updated with comments from Dole, hearing Q&A.

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