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Right now representatives of the two largest economies in the world - China and the United States - are locked in tense negotiations over trade. Leading the U.S. delegation is U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer. Lighthizer is a lawyer with more than four decades of experience in Washington trade battles. He grew up in a steel port town on Lake Erie. And it is that experience that helped turn him into a major skeptic of free trade. NPR's Jim Zarroli has this profile.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Last October, President Trump unveiled a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. It had taken months to negotiate. And as he did, he turned to shake hands with a tall, unassuming man who stood behind him holding a folder filled with papers.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No matter when you called him, he was in the office or he was in somebody else's office doing the same thing. Bob Lighthizer's great. I've heard it for years. I said, if I ever do this, I want to get Lighthizer to represent us because he felt the way I did.
ZARROLI: With Robert Lighthizer, Trump has a trade representative who very much shares his hardball views on trade, if not his pugnacious style. Take China, for instance. Way back in the '90s, Lighthizer was warning that China was no ordinary market economy. It didn't play by the rules. If American markets were open to Chinese imports, he said, no U.S. factory job would be safe. And Lighthizer's views on China haven't changed over the years. Here's a speech from 2017.
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ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: The sheer scale of their coordinated efforts to develop their economy, to subsidize, to create national champions and to distort markets is a threat to the world trading system that is unprecedented.
ZARROLI: And Lighthizer has been a big critic of trade deals like NAFTA. He warned that they would devastate American manufacturing. In Washington, where one administration after another preached the gospel of free trade, Lighthizer's views placed him outside the mainstream for a long time, says Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations.
EDWARD ALDEN: The view in Washington has been that opening up trade is good for the United States and good for the other countries involved. Lighthizer is a professed economic nationalist. He's very much about what's in it for the United States.
ZARROLI: But Lighthizer is well-respected, even by those he's clashed with such as former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor, who helped negotiate NAFTA for the Clinton administration. Kantor says he's often been at odds with Lighthizer. But he concedes that Lighthizer has a deep understanding of trade law.
MICKEY KANTOR: Well, he's bright. He's experienced. He's confident. He is - certainly understands these issues backwards and forwards.
ZARROLI: But Lighthizer also has fans in some even more unusual places. He's well-respected by unions and by people on the left, such as Lori Wallach, a leading opponent of trade deals.
LORI WALLACH: Bob Lighthizer's kind of like the unicorn USTR. It's like a mythical beast who, actually, by merits of his past work, has relationships with Democrats in Congress and with unions and has relationships with businesses and with Republicans.
ZARROLI: Wallach, founder of Global Trade Watch, remembers listening to Lighthizer speak out against NAFTA in the '90s. She was surprised at her own reaction.
WALLACH: Which was, that's kind of scary. That right-wing Reagan administration Republican trade guy is saying things that I 70 percent agree with.
ZARROLI: Since then, they've often worked together in trade battles. And they talk regularly. Lighthizer's skepticism about free trade was shaped, in part, by his background. He grew up in relative comfort in the Ohio city of Ashtabula. Mark Plagakis (ph) worked with him at a summer job in a grocery store.
MARK PLAGAKIS: He was a good kid, handsome, well-spoken. His dad was a doctor, which, in Ashtabula at that time, was, you know, elite social status.
ZARROLI: The Ashtabula of Lighthizer's childhood was a thriving port town. It shipped in iron ore for steel mills and shipped out coal from Kentucky and West Virginia. But much of that is gone today. Former union official Ray Gruber (ph) drove me around town on a cold, overcast day, past empty storefronts and faded frame houses. These days, much less freight comes through Ashtabula's port. And many of its manufacturers have fled.
RAY GRUBER: The big plants have all moved out. And that happened late '70s, early '80s. I think there was a lot of shock and awe because now all of a sudden, you've got a thousand people who are looking for work.
ZARROLI: Those who know him say Lighthizer brings up Ashtabula's decline in conversation and that it's affected his views on trade. Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers.
LEO GERARD: He grew up in a working-class town. And he knows how people have suffered by losing jobs. And I suspect that that's part of why he went into the - that part of the legal profession.
ZARROLI: As a lawyer, Lighthizer represented the steel industry in Washington. He also worked on trade policy in the Reagan administration. At the time, his target was Japan, which was seen as a big threat to American manufacturing jobs. Lighthizer helped push Tokyo to accept limits on how much it exported to the U.S., says Edward Alden.
ALDEN: I think the Japan experience told him the only way you make progress is through threats that you're prepared to carry out to restrict access to the world's largest market, which is the United States.
ZARROLI: Now Lighthizer is trying to make the same threats against China. He sees China as an even more formidable adversary than Japan. Its markets remain largely closed to outsiders, he says. Intellectual property theft is a huge problem. Here's what Lighthizer said in 2017.
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LIGHTHIZER: Expect change. Expect new approaches. And expect action.
ZARROLI: Now as the country's chief negotiator on trade, Lighthizer is in a position to do something about it. And those who know him say Lighthizer, at 71, used this as his last best chance to reverse the decline of cities such as Ashtabula, the town he grew up in. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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