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

While President Joe Biden seeks to mend relationships with foreign partners hurt by former President Donald Trump’s trade wars, much of the day-to-day work will be on Tai as his USTR, the country’s foremost trade attorney.

But Tai will also face a challenge at home: hearing your voice on a Biden foreign policy team, some of whom have in-depth knowledge of world trade and whose members have worked with the president for years.

Tai, 46, will take on her USTR role as senior trade advisor on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where she led tough negotiations on the US-Mexico-Canada deal that updated NAFTA.

Through these talks, the Democrats have gained an unprecedented level of labor and environmental protection that they will hopefully use as a model for future trade deals. And Tai won the admiration of lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill for being straightforward in arranging meetings and settling political differences with members of both parties.

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

Participants in those discussions said it was fresh air for those who are used to dealing with Trump’s negotiating style.

“She was never shady,” said a former Hill colleague who was not authorized to speak about the candidate. “She was as open as possible to a group of people who were clearly on different sides of these issues.”

Tai was born in Connecticut to Taiwanese parents and studied at Yale and Harvard Law after attending Sidwell Friends School in Washington. As a fluent speaker of Mandarin, she lived in China while studying and taught English at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. She has worked for a number of law firms, including Baker & McKenzie and Miller & Chevalier, and has worked as a clerk for US District Courts in Washington, DC and Maryland.

Then Tai’s career turned to the agency she is now to run. In 2007 she moved to USTR as Associate General Counsel. In 2011, she was named Chief Counsel for Chinese Trade Enforcement and oversaw 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 political behavior earned her support on a wide range of US trade interests, from unions to large corporations. The most recent: a group of more than 100 food and agricultural companies and associations asked the Senate to confirm it in a letter She touts her “proven ability to build bipartisan support for trade policy”.

Biden noticed the broad support when he announced her as his candidate. “I have more calls congratulating me on your appointment than you can imagine,” he said in December.

Once confirmed, Tai will take on her first executive role in Washington alongside many colleagues who have long-standing relationships with the president.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken advised Biden as Vice President, as did National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Brian Deese, chairman of the National Economic Council, is another veteran of the Obama administration. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was Obama’s chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Tai’s relative newcomer status has raised concerns that she might struggle to influence politics on a team with Biden confidants. When the transition reviewed Tai, business interests raised a warning flag, advising that it is rare for committee staff to make the leap to a cabinet position without first serving as a deputy.

Early moves by the Biden team resulted in the president’s longtime allies seeking to take the lead in trade policy.

During the transition, the team largely shared its foreign policy actions through Sullivan’s Twitter account. This included trade issues such as a Warning to European partners not concluding an investment contract with Beijing. (Brussels went ahead and signed the deal anywayand hands the incoming administration its first foreign policy nudge).

Blinken also addressed trade issues during the campaign and announced a webinar in September – months before his nomination – that Biden would not rule out new tariffs.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently put Sullivan at the forefront of trade policy in two briefings.

“What is important for the president and also for our national security adviser Jake Sullivan is that everything we do must contribute to promoting working families and the American middle class,” she told the press on January 22nd, which is part of hers Target and how they would go about it. “

But Tai’s supporters reject the notion that she will stand on the sidelines, saying that some of the concerns could be wrongly attributed to her because she would be the first black woman to be the USTR.

“You could have a circumstance where someone like Blinken with a longstanding personal relationship with the president could try to dominate it [trade] Problems, ”said Brian Pomper, a former Senate trade clerk who now works for the Akin Gump law firm. “But regardless of the idea that she is an employee being promoted to a cabinet position, I think that a CTR who was not a subject matter expert is much more likely to be marginalized than someone who was a true subject matter expert is. “

Willems pointed out that Lighthizer didn’t have a long-term relationship with Trump either, but ultimately had a huge impact on that administration’s policies, such as tariffs and the Phase 1 deal with China.

“What Katherine brings to the table here is significant substantive knowledge … not just of the issues, but of the state of affairs,” said Willems. “Lighthizer knew the trade very well, but it wasn’t part of the DC apparatus on every issue. And you name it, whether it’s China, the WTO or [free trade agreements] Katherine is right in the middle. So your learning curve will be very limited. “

Trade leaders in Congress say Tai’s position will likely be strengthened by a strong confirmatory vote. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), himself a former USTR under George W. Bush, said he believed Tai “will deserve bipartisan support for the USTR role,” despite being the only GOP senator to date Announced position to her.

Tai’s path to confirmation is through the Senate Finance Committee, of which Portman is a member. Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the panel’s top Republican, declined to comment on her nomination, but the panel’s Democratic scrutiny means it will likely vote for her regardless of Crapo’s position in the Senate promote.

Tai makes the rounds of the hill ahead of her confirmation hearing, which is not yet scheduled. Portman said he urged them to “continue the previous administration’s firm approach to China and maintain the US position in support of WTO reform.”

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

The details of this agenda have yet to be filled in, and Biden’s team is committed not to focus on new trade talks until the domestic stimulus is secured. But once it’s high on the White House agenda, Willems will be briefed on her career as a litigator and negotiator who represents the Biden administration on the world stage like any other client.

“I don’t see her with all of these deep immutable views. She’s a lawyer and we look after our clients,” he said. “So when Biden says I’ll be tough on China and work with allies … I think it will Do you.”

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