On a spring day in 2017, Robert Lighthizer walked through the doors of the office of the United States Trade Representative to introduce himself to the career staff who had shepherded American trade policy for a generation.
There was, nonetheless, considerable apprehension among the few hundred USTR staff gathered in the auditorium.
Moving plants to cheaper locales all over the world was rapidly becoming the default setting for American companies, and plenty of attorneys were making good money helping them do it.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross managed trade policy in Lighthizer’s absence, along with the virulently anti-China trade advisor Peter Navarro.
“Lighthizer and his team came in not as free traders,” said one USTR staff member who served through the transition.