Read: The elusive ‘better deal’ with China
Lighthizer believes that the shrinking of the American steel industry isn’t a mere by-product of technological shifts, but the result of a war China has been waging for decades. He and his allies think the growing superpower will now take the fight to other U.S. interests, threatening the nation’s economic hegemony. Now he’s preparing his own battle plan, refined over a career of lobbying. He plans to bend the rules of the global economy in America’s favor—even if that means breaking the system America itself created.
It’s easy to forget how new our global economic system is.
In the early 1980s, when Lighthizer first got the call to join the executive branch, there was no nafta, no European Union, no World Trade Organization. Within America’s cozy trade community, Lighthizer was already established. When he was nominated to serve as President Ronald Reagan’s deputy trade representative in 1983, the Senate Finance Committee that was to vet him greeted his introduction with knowing laughter, according to The New York Times. The inside joke was that he was an inside man—he was already a staffer on the committee.
Under Reagan, Lighthizer’s key assignment was to use American leverage in one-on-one talks to persuade trading partners like Japan to accept terms that favored U.S. firms. He came away with a reputation as a blunt, effective negotiator, and a nickname to match: “missile man.” Japanese negotiators slapped him with the moniker, according to The Wall Street Journal, after he folded one of their proposals into a paper airplane and threw it back at them.
In 1985, Lighthizer joined an elite law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he would stay until his formal return to government under Donald Trump. He quickly settled down into the client work that would define his career: representing the American steel industry in its trade disputes. Technically, that made him a lobbyist, but any aspersion implied in that label misses the point. “He enjoys being part of the exercise of power,” his brother James Lighthizer, a Maryland Democrat, told The Washington Post in 1987. “Like me, that’s his passion. This lobbying stuff pays great, but it’s secondary. He didn’t get involved in government to do lobbying, he got involved in lobbying to get back in government.”
Lighthizer’s methods of waging war were vicious, but not strictly underhanded. “Honest isn’t quite the right word,” the trade lawyer Donald Cameron told me, searching for an adjective to describe the Skadden team he had worked against over the years. “I found that their representation was actually stronger and just more reasonable in the way that they approached it than some of the other firms that represent U.S. steel interests.” Their gift was knowing where the money was and going after it with verve. In 1992, Lighthizer and Alan Wolff, a frequent collaborator from another law firm, planned a gluttonous feast for the creatures of Washington’s swamp. Together, they sent the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission “two million pages of documents in 650 boxes” according to The New York Times. The filings documented allegations of unfair trading practices, which, if upheld, would lead to tariffs against American firms’ overseas competitors. To save their business, foreign steelmakers would have to join in the legal feeding frenzy, making Washington’s trade lawyers the one guaranteed winner. “This is a fat pig, and they all want a slice of it,” Lighthizer told the Times. “Every single person in town will be working on this, every single one.”