Two deals in pocket but no holiday cheer for US trade chief Lighthizer

The conservative Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece that said the Trump administration had bowed to "politically managed trade"

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was looking forward to some holiday peace and quiet after wrapping up trade deals with the United States' most important trading partners - China, Mexico, and Canada - last week.

Instead, the long-standing member of President Donald Trump's inner circle who normally eschews public appearances found himself doing wall-to-wall interviews, scrambling to correct a misunderstanding with the Mexican government and taking heat from his fellow Republicans in Congress.

US China flag
Representational Image Reuters

The conservative Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece that said the Trump administration had bowed to "politically managed trade" in agreeing to Democratic demands to revamp the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), while former USTR officials and investment analysts panned the Phase 1 US-China trade deal as falling far short of expectations.

Lighthizer, 72, is an anomaly in today's hyper-partisan Washington, a powerful member of Trump's White House who has won sometimes grudging praise from Democrats and Republicans, while keeping the ear and respect of the president throughout.

The USTR chief was "the most present person from this administration that I have seen in my three years in Congress," said US Representative Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat. "He was all over the place, and I think that helped out quite a bit."

Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO labour union, whose support for USMCA was critical to ensuring congressional backing, called Lighthizer "an honorable man," adding, "I've worked with him for 35, 40 years, and we've always been able to work deals out because I know when he tells me something, it's good."

The USMCA, which will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the China trade deal were two of Trump's top priorities, and landing them both in the same week was a public relations triumph.

But the efforts to reel in those deals took longer and proved harder than expected, and triggered further questions.

Critics say some of that is a byproduct of Lighthizer's tight-fisted negotiating style. Congressional sources and former US government officials say he is always well-prepared but can appear arrogant and unwilling to delegate.

Lighthizer is also prone to slamming down the phone in anger, Representative Richard Neal, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, told reporters last week.