WASHINGTON Jan 10 When billionaire investor
Wilbur Ross salvaged two North Carolina textile mills from
bankruptcy in 2003 and 2004, one of the first things he did was
head to Washington to immerse himself in trade law and policy.
China's accession to the World Trade Organization had
unleashed a flood of textile imports across U.S. borders, and
Ross - now President-elect Donald Trump's pick for commerce
secretary - took an unusual hands-on approach, advocating for
"safeguard" tariffs to help the ravaged domestic industry.
"He was not the first outside investor to come into the
industry and buy a major asset. He was the first and to my
knowledge only major outside investor who took on that same sort
of attitude that the more home-grown CEOs had," said Auggie
Tantillo, who has lobbied for textile makers in Washington for
almost 40 years.
Ross' history owning and defending embattled steel and
textile manufacturing companies that have relied on border
duties to protect their industries means he will bring a unique
approach to the commerce secretary job, departing from the
traditional role of cheerleading for free trade and big
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Ross, 79, who is personally
close to Trump, will be a lead player shaping U.S. trade policy,
working alongside Robert Lighthizer, a lawyer known for his work
with beleaguered U.S. manufacturers whom Trump has tapped as
U.S. Trade Representative, and Peter Navarro, an economist and
China hawk who will serve as a White House adviser.
Free trade advocates worry the Trump trade triumvirate will
be too quick to use tariffs to keep imports out, raising costs
for manufacturers that rely on imported parts - or even sparking
retaliatory trade wars.
"The three of them - those guys put together - can create a
lot of mischief," said Dan Ikenson, a long-time trade policy
economist now with the Cato Institute think tank.
Ross, who is set to appear at a Senate hearing on his
nomination on Thursday at 10 a.m., did not respond to a request
A spokesman for Trump's transition team said Ross would draw
on his experience "saving and creating" manufacturing jobs if
confirmed, and would push to expand exports and reduce imports.
In a Senate questionnaire ahead of his hearing, Ross said he
has owned or had a significant stake in more than 100 businesses
over 55 years.
The Economist has called Ross "Mr. Protectionism," a term
Ross told CNBC he sees as "pejorative" and inaccurate because he
said the threat tariffs would be a used as a negotiating tool.
Ross has worked with allies in trade unions and other
industry groups hurt by imports to push for tariffs and quotas,
even starting his own coalition in 2003.
Though the coalition was short-lived, Ross's trade rhetoric
about the trade deficit and currency manipulation has remained
consistent - and was echoed on the campaign trail by Trump.
Ross called the 20-year-old North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada the "poster child for
unbalanced trade and investment," in a letter to The Wall Street
He has accused Mexico of importing auto parts from China for
vehicles it shipped duty-free into the United States.
But his companies have also produced goods in Mexico. The
2007 annual report for his International Textile Group called
NAFTA "advantageous to the company" because of its factories
And Ross supported the Central America Free Trade Agreement,
saying he believed it fixed some of what he saw as loopholes in
Ross has drawn an unusual endorsement for his manufacturing
chops - from the United Steelworkers union, which backed Trump's
Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the election.
Leo Gerard, president of the USW, in an interview last month
said Trump's team understands that trade remedy laws themselves
need to be modernized to make it easier to impose sanctions and
duties before industries are hurt and jobs are lost.
"We have a lot of suggestions for when there's a new trade
team," Gerard told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Caren Bohan
and Leslie Adler)