WASHINGTON — In the middle of his crowded dinner in Buenos Aires with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump leaned across the table, pointed to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative whose skepticism of China runs deep, and declared, “That’s my negotiator!”
He then turned to Peter Navarro, his even more hawkish trade adviser, adding, “And that’s my tough guy!” according to aides with knowledge of the exchange.
Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement.
And he must do it in a way that tilts the balance of power toward the United States. His approach will have significant ramifications for American companies, workers and consumers whose fortunes, whether Mr. Trump likes it or not, are increasingly tied to China.
First, however, Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are “easy to win” and his recent boast that he is a “Tariff Man,” Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly told his advisers that Mr. Xi is someone with whom he can cut a big deal, according to people who have spoken with the president. On Saturday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Xi to discuss the status of talks, tweeting afterward that good progress was being made. “Deal is moving along very well,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration has tried to force China to change its ways with stiff tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States and threats of additional levies on another $267 billion worth of goods. China has responded with its own tit-for-tat tariffs on American goods. But over a steak dinner during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a 90-day truce and to work toward an agreement that Mr. Trump said could lead to “one of the largest deals ever made.”
Mr. Lighthizer — whose top deputy will meet with Chinese officials this week ahead of more high-level talks in February — has played down any differences with Mr. Trump and views his role as ultimately executing the directive of his boss. But the trade representative, who declined to be interviewed, has told friends and associates that he is intent on preventing the president from being talked into accepting “empty promises” like temporary increases in soybean or beef purchases.
Mr. Lighthizer, 71, is pushing for substantive changes, such as forcing China to end its practice of requiring American companies to hand over valuable technology as a condition of doing business there. But after 40 years of dealing with China and watching it dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs in order to win true concessions.
When Mr. Lighthizer senses that anyone — even Mr. Trump — might be going a little soft on China, he opens a paper-clipped manila folder he totes around and brandishes a single-page, easy-reading chart that lists decades of failed trade negotiations with Beijing, according to administration officials.
“Bob’s attitude toward China is very simple. He wants them to surrender,” said William A. Reinsch, a former federal trade official who met him three decades ago when Mr. Lighthizer was a young aide for former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “His negotiating strategy is simple too. He basically gives them a list of things he wants them to do and says, ‘Fix it now.’”
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Lighthizer last month to lead the talks initially spooked markets, which viewed the China skeptic’s appointment as an ominous sign. It also annoyed Chinese officials, who had been talking with the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a more moderate voice on trade and the primary point of contact for Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator. Mr. Mnuchin has urged the president to avoid a protracted trade war, even if that entails reaching an interim agreement that leaves some issues unresolved.
Mr. Mnuchin, who attended the G-20 dinner, helped Mr. Trump craft an upbeat assessment declaring the Buenos Aires meeting “highly successful” in the presidential limousine back to the airport, according to a senior administration official.
The disparate views among Mr. Trump’s top trade advisers have prompted sparring — both publicly and behind the scenes.
During an Oval Office meeting with the trade team the fall of 2017, Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Mnuchin and Gary D. Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, of bad-mouthing him to free-trade Republican senators.
The argument grew so heated that the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, quickly pulled the combatants into the nearby Roosevelt Room and away from the president, where the argument raged on for a few more minutes, according to two witnesses.
Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative, disputed the account.
Mr. Lighthizer has since worked to increase his own face time with Mr. Trump. He has joked to colleagues that he has more influence with Mr. Trump during winter months because he is able to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the president’s flights down to Mar-a-Lago, which is several miles from Mr. Lighthizer’s own $2.3 million waterfront condo in Palm Beach, Fla.
He used that access to argue to Mr. Trump that the United States has never had more leverage to extract structural reforms on intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from American companies and cybercrime. But while Mr. Trump has jumped at the chance to claim victory in changing China’s ways, experts say that what Mr. Lighthizer is demanding would require significant shifts in how Beijing’s central government and its manufacturing sector coordinate their activities, and that might simply not be possible in the short term.
“Good luck with that,” Mr. Scissors said.
Those who know Mr. Lighthizer say he will try to force concessions through a combination of pressure tactics, like tariffs, and public condemnation. Mr. Lighthizer — who described his own negotiating style as “knowing where the leverage is” during a 1984 interview — typically presents few specific demands during initial talks while publicly bashing efforts by the other side.
He used that approach during recent talks with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, criticizing foreign counterparts as intransigent and characterizing complaints by American businesses as pure greed.
Mr. Lighthizer’s unsparing view of China comes, in part, from his childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, an industrial and shipping town on the Great Lakes hit by the offshoring of steel and chemical production. For much of his career, Mr. Lighthizer was a lonely protectionist voice in a Republican Party dominated by free traders, alternating between jobs in government and a lucrative private law career representing large American corporations like United States Steel in trade cases against China.
Mr. Lighthizer found his way into Mr. Trump’s orbit through his work in the steel industry, where he gained prominence by filing lawsuits accusing Japan and China of dumping metals into the United States, in violation of trade laws. In 2011, Mr. Lighthizer caught Mr. Trump’s eye with an opinion piece in The Washington Times, in which he defended Mr. Trump’s approach to China as consistent with conservative ideology and compared the future president to Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.
Taciturn in public and self-deprecating in private, Mr. Lighthizer sees himself as a serious player on the world stage: Two recent guests to Mr. Lighthizer’s Georgetown townhouse were greeted by the stern visage of their host staring down at them from an oil portrait on the wall.
The trade adviser is guarded around Mr. Trump, often waiting until the end of meetings to make his points and quietly nudging the president away from actions he views as counterproductive, current and former officials said. That was the case in mid-2017 when he cautioned the president against withdrawing unilaterally from the World Trade Organization, adding for emphasis, “And I hate the W.T.O. as much as anybody.”
He does not always get his way. In the wake of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada this fall, Mr. Lighthizer urged Mr. Trump to consider easing steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries and replacing them with less burdensome quotas. Mr. Trump rejected his plan, according to negotiators from all three countries.
A poker-faced Mr. Lighthizer broke the news to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by declaring the proposal was inoperative, one of the officials said.
The president also ignored Mr. Lighthizer’s advice in early December when he announced that he intended to begin the six-month process of withdrawing the United States from Nafta in order to pressure House Democrats into passing the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That threat undermined months of quiet negotiations between Mr. Lighthizer, labor groups and Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to try to win their support for the new trade deal. Mr. Trump has yet to follow through on his threat, and Mr. Lighthizer continues trying to work with Democrats to get the new trade deal approved.
“Bob is trying to provide stability and focus in a completely chaotic environment,” Mr. Brown said. “I can’t speak for Bob, but I am certain he is frustrated. How could you not be frustrated as the U.S. trade representative for a president who knows what his gut thinks but hasn’t put much of his brains into trade?”
In the 1960s, much like today, people with opposing viewpoints struggled to communicate with one another. Yet there was a civility to that era’s public debate that is nowhere to be found today, owing to liberal elites’ understanding that refusing to engage would only reinforce the “us versus them” mentality that fuels radicalism... Dutschke tried to “unmask” Dahrendorf – the liberal establishment intellectual – as exploitative and undemocratic; Dahrendorf countered that Dutschke’s revolutionary rhetoric was naive, more hot air than substance, and ultimately dangerous... The debate began with Thadden detailing his political views, offering an unapologetic assessment of Germany’s role in WWII, and explaining the rise of the NPD. Dahrendorf, a sociology professor, followed with an analysis of the NPD’s diverse membership, which included old Nazis, disillusioned identity seekers, and opportunistic anti-modernists... Dahrendorf was adamant that the NPD’s fate should be decided by the voters, rather than the courts, which had declared the Communist Party illegal. Kaul reiterated this idea in a passionate statement (which had undoubtedly been agreed in advance by East German leaders) about the exclusion of West Germany’s Communists from the debate. Other panelists agreed. A liberal democracy, Dahrendorf concluded, cannot exclude radicals on one side, while tolerating those on the other... It is hard to imagine today’s mainstream politicians and public intellectuals engaging publicly in such profound and mutually respectful debates with today’s radicals and upstarts, whether populists, economic nationalists, Euroskeptics, or something else. Those on the far left and the far right certainly are not engaging one another in this manner. Each side would rather preach to its own audience, accessible within media bubbles where there is little demand for genuine discussion of opposing views... Many establishment leaders nowadays – the so-called elites who are the standard-bearers of the liberal democratic order – seem to believe that the risks of engaging with radical figures are too great: more exposure could mean more legitimacy. But this stance is itself highly risky, not least because it has translated into a willful blindness to the social changes that have fueled extremist ideologies – an approach that comes across to many as arrogant... Recall US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s flippant assertion that half of her rival Donald Trump’s supporters comprised a “basket of deplorables.”.. One cannot simply wish away extremists. Letting radical movements run their course, as some have suggested, is both reckless and dangerous, given the amount of damage they can do before they fail. To fulfill their responsibility as stewards of the public good, cultural and political “elites” must eschew elitism and find formats and formulas that enable more constructive engagement among diverse groups, including – as difficult as it may be – radical and populist movements... Dahrendorf rightly proclaimed that extremists’ success was a measure of democratic elites’ failings. Like the NPD in the 1960s, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) owes its success in last September’s federal election to the refusal of the country’s political, economic, and academic elites to engage constructively with the public, much less with those the public believed were willing to address their concerns... Defenders of liberal democracy must debate the populists not to change the populists’ minds, but to make the public understand what each party really stands for, not simply against. Yes, this could mean giving populists more airtime, and it risks normalizing extreme views. But the threats associated with an aggressively polarized public sphere – one that extremists have proved adept at exploiting – are much greater.
Graham-Cassidy, the health bill the Senate may vote on next week, is stunningly cruel. It’s also incompetently drafted: The bill’s sponsors clearly had no idea what they were doing when they put it together. Furthermore, their efforts to sell the bill involve obvious, blatant lies.
The Affordable Care Act, which has reduced the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low, created a three-legged stool:
- regulations that prevent insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions,
- a requirement that individuals have adequate insurance (and thus pay into the system while healthy)
- and subsidies to make that insurance affordable. For the lowest-income families, insurance is provided directly by Medicaid.
Graham-Cassidy saws off all three legs of that stool.
- it eliminates the individual mandate.
- sharply reduces funding relative to current law, and especially penalizes states that have done a good job of reducing the number of uninsured.
- And it effectively eliminates protection for Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Did Graham-Cassidy’s sponsors know what they were doing when putting this bill together? Almost surely not, or they wouldn’t have produced something that everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows anything about health care warns would cause chaos.
Republicans are trying to ram the bill through before the Congressional Budget Office has time to analyze it — an attempt that is in itself a violation of all previous norms, and amounts to an admission that the bill can’t bear scrutiny.
.. Lindsey Graham, Bill Cassidy, and the bill’s other sponsors have responded to these critiques the old-fashioned way — with lies.
.. Cassidy has also circulated a spreadsheet that purports to show most states actually getting increased funding under his bill. But the spreadsheet doesn’t compare funding with current law, which is the relevant question.
.. That’s actually a well-known dodge, one that Republicans have been using since Newt Gingrich tried to gut Medicare in the 1990s. As everyone in Congress — even Cassidy — surely knows, such comparisons drastically understate the real size of cuts, since under current law spending is expected to rise with inflation and population growth.
.. Republicans are desperate to destroy President Barack Obama’s legacy in any way possible, no matter how many American lives they ruin in the process.
.. most Republican legislators neither know nor care about policy substance. This is especially true on health care, where they never tried to understand why Obamacare looks the way it does, or how to devise a nonvicious alternative.
.. the evasions and lies we’re seeing on this bill have been standard G.O.P. operating procedure for years. The trick of converting federal programs into block grants, then pretending that this wouldn’t mean savage cuts, was central to every one of Paul Ryan’s much-hyped budgets.
.. Graham-Cassidy isn’t an aberration; it’s more like the distilled essence of everything wrong with modern Republicans.
.. But even if the handful of Republican senators who retain some conscience block it — we’re looking at you, John McCain — the underlying sickness of the G.O.P. will remain.
Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity.
.. There will be plenty of reasons to complain during the Trump presidency, when really awful decisions are made. Why complain now, when no decision has been made? It delegitimizes the future protests and exposes the bias of the opposition.
.. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.
.. And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.
.. with Mr. Trump’s encouragement, the Republican platform called for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, which would separate investment and commercial banking. The Democrats should declare their support of this separation, a policy that many Republicans oppose. The last thing they should want is for Mr. Trump to use the Republican establishment as a fig leaf for his own failure, dumping on it the responsibility for blocking the popular reforms that he promised during the campaign and probably never intended to pass. That will only enlarge his image as a hero of the people shackled by the elites.
.. Finally, the Democratic Party should also find a credible candidate among young leaders, one outside the party’s Brahmins. The news that Chelsea Clinton is considering running for office is the worst possible. If the Democratic Party is turning into a monarchy, how can it fight the autocratic tendencies in Mr. Trump?