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Market turmoil puts pressure on Lighthizer, Mnuchin to get China trade deal for Trump

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As a 36-year-old deputy trade representative in the Reagan administration, Robert Lighthizer worried his counterparts in the Soviet Union didn’t take him seriously.

During negotiations over a long-term grain deal, the Soviets didn’t “accept the fact that I was the person who was going to conduct the talks,” he told The New York Times in an interview for a 1984 article. “But there came a point where it was clear they did.”

Flash forward more than three decades. After establishing his bona fides as a trade hard-liner over the years, Lighthizer’s role negotiating with America’s top economic rival — in this case, China — was again being challenged. This time, however, it was by people on his own team, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Just hours after Lighthizer, now 71, said that he would be leading the U.S. negotiating efforts with China, Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, the head of the National Economic Council, said that, in fact, President Donald Trump himself would be leading the talks.

As the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, race forward to meet a March 2 deadline to reach a deal on trade, the ideological divide between the White House’s two trade camps, led by Lighthizer and Mnuchin, has taken on a new significance.

Putting further pressure on those fault lines is a tumbling stock market which analysts have attributed in part to global growth concerns prompted by Trump’s trade war.

On one side is Lighthizer, who along with Peter Navarro, the Director of the National Trade Council, has staked out a stance that is largely indifferent to to the stock market. The former international lawyer, who leads the agency responsible for crafting trade deals, has long accused China of rigging agreements unfairly in its favor.

He has called March 2 a “hard deadline,” and said that after that date, tariffs will increase on the country if no deal is reached.

When Trump wavers in his resolve, Lighthizer brandishes a single-page document that he carries around with him that contains a list of failed trade talks with China, The New York Times reported this month, citing administration officials. While other officials have their eye on the stock market, Lighthizer has his eye on that history.

On the other side is the Treasury secretary, Mnuchin, who in attempts to reassure investors, has taken a different tack. Mnuchin opposes a long-lasting trade war, and has issued public statements seeking to calm the markets. After Trump met with Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires late last year, Mnuchin helped craft the president’s post-summit messaging, according to the Times.

Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs banker who said shortly after taking on his new role that he saw the stock market as the administration’s “report card.” He has been accused by China skeptics of taking a soft stance on trade negotiations with the country.

“I have never met a Goldman Sachs banker who wanted to get tough on China,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told Mnuchin during his confirmation hearings in 2017.

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