A GOP donor and past official deeply entrenched in Establishment circles who has emerged as a possible candidate for U.S. trade representative is raising red flags among trade policy critics.
Wayne Berman, currently senior adviser for global government affairs at the Blackstone Group, would bring decades of Washington experience to the position responsible for negotiating trade agreements and defending U.S. interests in international trade disputes. He was assistant secretary of commerce in the George H.W. Bush administration and served as an adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.
“The Trump administration is supposed to be draining the swamp. This would be another job, if it goes to Berman, that would go to a swamp dweller.”
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Berman was also a fundraiser for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney and was national finance chairman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
“The person who is going to be USTR is someone who should be outside of the usual constellation of politicians and insiders where these appointments normally come from,” said Kevin Kearns, president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council. “The Trump administration is supposed to be draining the swamp. This would be another job, if it goes to Berman, that would go to a swamp-dweller … These people have been part of the problem for years, for decades.”
Previously, Nucor Steel CEO Dan DiMicco seemed like a front-runner for the position. He is one of two people named to head the “landing team” from the Trump transition team to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Some observers view DiMicco and the co-leader of the landing team, trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer, as better positioned than Berman to aggressively confront China’s bid for “Market Economy Status” in the World Trade Organization — both by virtue of expertise and ideology. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, agreed to the status over the summer.
China argues that getting Market Economy Status by the end of the year is guaranteed under the terms of the agreement under which it entered the WTO in 2001, but the United States maintains that the country did not take required steps to transform its state-run economy. A complex lawsuit is likely to ensue.
It is unclear how much power the trade representative will have in the Trump administration, however. The Financial Times reported last week that Trump intends to run trade policy out of the Commerce Department, traditionally a second-tier Cabinet agency without much clout. Trump’s choice for the department’s secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, is a prominent critic of U.S. trade policy.
The story suggested a reorganization of the players in charge of trade could create friction with Congress.
“I don’t understand that at all,” Kearns said. “Why not?”
Alan Tonelson, an economic policy analyst who has advocated for more aggressive measures to reverse the U.S. trade deficit, noted reports that Berman is a close friend of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and served as national finance co-chairman in his 2008 presidential campaign.
“That’s certainly not a good sign for folks who think trade policy urgently needs to be overhauled,” he said, later added that McCain “literally could not have been worse … On trade policy, he seems to be operating on the principle of ‘America Last.'”
Tonelson said he also is skeptical of Berman’s ties to Rubio, “who almost never votes right on trade policy, in my view.”
For all his time in Washington, though, Berman’s specific views on trade are not well-known. He has not been a major player in shaping trade policy. If Berman gets the appointment, his views almost certainly will become better known since the position requires Senate confirmation.
Tonelson will be among those paying close attention to the confirmation hearings.
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“We don’t know what we need to know,” he said.