At USTR, a straight-shooter will have to navigate Biden's old guard in Washington

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World leaders may experience some whiplash when sitting down to negotiate with U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai.

Tai is known throughout Washington for her calm, good-natured negotiating style. In many ways, she is the antithesis of her predecessor, the gruff, contentious Robert Lighthizer, who ruffled feathers from Brussels to Beijing.

“She’s a leader who inspires confidence through her wisdom, good nature, and steadiness,” said Tai’s former boss, House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal. “She provides unfailingly insightful counsel and keeps a level head in the most pressure-filled situations.”

As President Joe Biden moves to repair ties with foreign partners bruised by former President Donald Trump’s trade wars, much of the daily work will fall to Tai as his USTR, the nation’s top trade lawyer.

But Tai will also face a challenge at home: Having her voice heard among a Biden foreign policy team, some with deep knowledge of global trade, whose members have worked with the president for years.

Tai, 46, will come to her USTR role fresh off serving as the head trade counsel on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where she shepherded tough negotiations on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal that updated NAFTA.

Through those talks, Democrats won unprecedented labor and environmental protections they hope to use as a model for future trade deals. And Tai won the admiration of lawmakers and staffers across Capitol Hill for being straightforward as she arranged meetings and smoothed over policy differences with members of both parties.

“She has tons of credibility across the Democratic Party, across the political spectrum, and with Republicans,” added former Trump trade adviser Clete Willems, who worked alongside Tai at USTR earlier in their careers. “She will bring to the table the ability to come up with unusual solutions that can bridge factions.”

Participants in those discussions say it was fresh air for those used to dealing with Trump’s bait-and-switch negotiating style.

“She was never dodgy,” said one former Hill colleague not authorized to speak on the nominee. “She was as forthcoming as she could be to a group of people who clearly were on different sides of these issues.”

Tai, born in Connecticut to Taiwanese parents, studied at Yale and Harvard Law after attending Sidwell Friends School in Washington. A fluent Mandarin speaker, she lived in China during college, teaching English at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. She went on to work for a number of law firms, including Baker & McKenzie and Miller & Chevalier, and clerked for U.S. District Courts in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

Then, Tai’s career turned to the agency she is now tapped to lead. In 2007, she joined USTR as associate general counsel. In 2011, she was named chief counsel for China trade enforcement, overseeing disputes between Washington and Beijing at the World Trade Organization. She left that role in 2014 to join the House committee.

Tai’s résumé and policy-making demeanor earned her support from a broad swath of U.S. trading interests, from labor unions to major corporations. The most recent: A group of more than 100 food and agricultural firms and associations urged the Senate to confirm her in a letter touting her “demonstrated ability to build bipartisan support for trade policies.”

Biden noted the broad support when he announced her as his nominee. "I’ve got more calls complimenting me on your appointment than you can imagine,” he said in December.

But once confirmed, Tai will assume her first senior role in Washington, alongside many colleagues who enjoy longstanding relationships with the president.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken advised Biden when he was vice president, as did National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Brian Deese, head of the National Economic Council, is another Obama administration veteran. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was Obama’s Federal Reserve chair.

Tai’s relative newcomer status has raised concerns that she could struggle to influence policy in a team stacked with Biden confidants. As the transition vetted Tai, business interests raised a warning flag by pointing out it is rare for committee staffers to make the jump to a cabinet position without first serving as a deputy.

Early moves from the Biden team raised the possibility that the president’s longtime allies are trying to take the lead on trade policy.

During the transition, the team largely messaged its foreign policy moves through Sullivan’s Twitter account. That included trade issues, like a warning to European partners not to complete an investment deal with Beijing. (Brussels went ahead and signed the deal anyway, handing the incoming administration its first foreign policy snub).

Blinken, too, weighed in on trade issues during the campaign, telling a webinar in September — months before his nomination — that Biden wouldn’t rule out new tariffs.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also positioned Sullivan at the forefront of trade policy during two recent briefings.

“What is important to the president and also our national security adviser Jake Sullivan is that everything we do must help advance working families and the American middle class,” she told the press on Jan. 22. “That certainly includes any trade agreements and that is part of their objective and how they would approach it.”

But Tai’s backers dismiss the notion that she will be sidelined, and say some of the concerns may be unfairly attributed to her because she would be the first woman of color to be USTR.

“You could have a circumstance when someone like Blinken, with a longstanding personal relationship with the president, could seek to dominate these [trade] issues,” said Brian Pomper, a former Senate trade staffer now at law firm Akin Gump. “But regardless of the idea that she’s a staffer being elevated to a Cabinet position, I think it would be much more likely for a USTR who wasn’t a subject matter expert to be marginalized than someone who is a real subject expert.”

Willems pointed out that Lighthizer also lacked a longstanding relationship with Trump, but ended up being highly influential on that administration’s policies, like tariffs and the phase one deal with China.

“What Katherine brings to the table here is a significant substantive knowledge … not only of the issues, but the state of play,” Willems said. “Lighthizer knew trade really well but he wasn’t part of the D.C. apparatus on every issue. And you name it, whether it’s China, the WTO, or [free trade agreements] Katherine is in the middle of all of this. so her learning curve is going to be very limited.”

Trade leaders in Congress say Tai’s position will likely be bolstered by a strong confirmation vote. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), himself a former USTR under George W. Bush, said he believes Tai “will earn bipartisan support for the USTR role,” though he is the only GOP senator to announce a position on her so far.

Tai’s road to confirmation will run through the Senate Finance Committee, of which Portman is a member. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the panel’s top Republican, declined to comment on her nomination, but Democratic control of the panel means it will likely vote to advance her to the full Senate regardless of Crapo’s position.

Tai is making the rounds on the Hill ahead of her confirmation hearing, which has yet to be scheduled. Portman said he urged her to “continue the previous administration’s forceful approach with respect to China, and continue to advocate the consistent U.S. position in favor of WTO reform.”

Once Tai is confirmed, she has promised to push an agenda of “worker-centered” trade that recognizes “people are not just consumers. They are also workers and wage earners.”

The details of that agenda have yet to be filled in, and Biden’s team has pledged not to focus on new trade talks until domestic economic stimulus is secured. But once it is at the top of the White House agenda, Willems said Tai will be informed by her career as a trade litigator and negotiator, representing the Biden administration on the world stage as she would any other client.

“I don’t see her coming at this with this whole deep set of unchangeable views. She’s a lawyer, and we serve our clients,” he said. “So when Biden says I’m going to be tough on China and work with allies … I think that’s what she’s going to do.”

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