Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom offices in Washington, D.C. Credit: ALM

As the Trump administration ramps up pressure on foreign aluminum and steel manufacturers, one lawyer in Washington is finding himself thrust to the fore: Robert Lighthizer.

On March 9, The New York Times, spotlighting Lighthizer’s newfound prominence, called him “one of the most powerful people in Washington.” His role as U.S. trade representative puts him in position to decide during the next two weeks which countries—if any—should be exempt from the tariffs President Donald Trump recently authorized.

Lighthizer joined the U.S. trade office from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he focused on trade law for more than 30 years. He was confirmed to the post in May.

Robert Lighthizer.

His protectivist inclinations were apparent even during his time in private practice. Since 2007, Lighthizer had represented United States Steel in lawsuits seeking government protection from unfair trade practices abroad. Lighthizer, who retired from Skadden before joining the Trump administration, said his partnership share last year was worth $1.8 million, from representing only United States Steel. (Lighthizer later clarified to the federal government that he had not billed United States Steel for work in 2015, 2016 or 2017.)

In Trump, The New York Times reported, Lighthizer “found his trade policy soul mate.” After Trump laid out plans last month for stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum, Lighthizer came out in defense of his approach.

“Under the leadership of President Trump, America has a robust trade agenda that supports our national security,” Lighthizer said in a statement. “The president is once again demonstrating he will protect our country, fight for American workers and strictly enforce our trade laws. I will work closely with other cabinet officials to advise the president on how to implement the program on steel and aluminum that he announced today.”

This month, the Senate confirmed two other Big Law alumni to key trade posts in the Trump administration.

Skadden partner Jeffrey Gerrish, head of the firm’s international trade group, was picked to serve as deputy U.S. trade representative for Asia, Europe, the Middle East and industrial competitiveness. Williams & Connolly partner C.J. Mahoney is a deputy U.S. trade representative for investment, services, labor, environment, Africa, China and the Western Hemisphere.

Lighthizer staffed up his front office with hires from Big Law and Capitol Hill.

Jamieson Greer, serving as chief of staff, joined from Kirkland & Ellis, where he was of counsel in the firm’s international trade and national security practice. Greer earlier practiced in Skadden’s international trade group.

Lighthizer’s deputy chief of staff, Pamela Marcus, overseeing operations, jumped to the Trump administration from Skadden’s international trade group. She’d managed the group for 25 years, according to her bio online at the trade office.

Stephen Vaughn is serving as general counsel. He was formerly a partner in King & Spalding’s international trade group. Gil Kaplan, a former King & Spalding international trade partner, was nominated to serve as under secretary of international trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

A former Williams & Connolly associate, Eric Blankenstein, briefly served as an assistant general counsel under Vaughn before departing in December for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’s now a top adviser for the agency’s Trump-appointed interim chief, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.

At Commerce, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr counsel Jeffrey Kessler is awaiting confirmation for a top enforcement and compliance post. A Wilmer attorney since 2011, Kessler “has represented United States manufacturers in domestic trade remedy proceedings, helping them obtain relief from unfair foreign trade practices,” the White House said.

 

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