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Lighthizer joins Trump trade team crowded with deal makers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday tapped Robert Lighthizer to be U.S. trade representative, but his influence may be limited as Trump fills his team with wealthy deal makers.

Lighthizer, an official in the Reagan administration and a harsh critic of China’s trade practices, will be tasked with seeking deals aimed at reducing U.S. trade deficits.

He joins Trump’s choices for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and the head of a newly formed White House National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, as key officials in an administration where trade is very likely to take centre stage.

Trump has also tapped his company’s long-time top lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, as a “special negotiator” for trade deals and other talks.

It is unclear how these appointees will direct trade policy. While the Trump transition team has said the trade representative will still be the principal negotiator for trade deals, it has also said that Ross will be in charge of trade decisions.

Using multiple officials to shape trade policy is not new, said Scott Lincicome, an international trade attorney with White and Case. He noted that trade issues have often been tackled by various government agencies with differing objectives but said actual negotiations with other nations require a very clear line of authority.

“If you actually have four guys show up at a trade negotiation, you’d have a problem,” said Lincicome, who stressed that countries must be certain that the U.S. negotiator has the support of the president.

“These are very high level diplomatic negotiations. Other countries take very seriously the diplomatic hierarchy. There is protocol,” he said.

Trump, who promised during his campaign to renegotiate international trade deals such as NAFTA and punish companies that ship work overseas, has said that overhauling trade policy will be a top priority after he takes office on Jan. 20.

“USTR will still have statutory negotiation and enforcement powers, but where the big ideas on trade emerge from within a Trump administration remains to be seen,” said Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Lighthizer, deputy U.S. trade representative under Reagan, helped to stem the tide of imports from Japan in the 1980s with threats of quotas and punitive tariffs.

His return to the agency follows nearly three decades as a lawyer representing U.S. steelmakers and other companies in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases.

Lighthizer is regarded as an experienced tactician with an intimate knowledge of trade tools that were widely used before the WTO was created in 1995, including “Section 301” tariffs used to stem a tide of imports of Japanese steel and vehicles in the 1980s.

Additional reporting by David Alexander and Jeff Mason; Editing by Susan Heavey, Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe