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Commerce pick says NAFTA will be early target for team Trump


January 19, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — Breaking with Republican orthodoxy, a new Trump administration will work quickly to re-do the North American Free Trade Agreement, a massive trade pact with Canada and Mexico that has boosted trade but still stings laid off workers across the Midwest, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for commerce secretary told Congress on Wednesday.

At his confirmation hearing, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross said all free trade agreements should be systematically re-opened every few years to make sure they are working in the best interests of the U.S.

Ross said he is pro-free trade, but noted his close relationship with the United Steelworkers union as proof that he will fight to protect American jobs. The union has endorsed him.

“NAFTA is logically the first thing for us to deal with,” Ross said. “We must solidify relationships in the best way we can in our own territory before we go off to other jurisdictions.”

“That will be a very, very early topic in this administration,” Ross added. “I think all aspects of NAFTA will be put on the table.”

Trump’s views on trade are at odds with most congressional Republicans, who generally support America’s trade pacts as a way to boost U.S. exports and to provide affordable consumer goods.

But trade is a divisive issue in much of the country, and Trump’s attacks on NAFTA and other pacts during the election played well in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — all states the businessman won.

NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton, with broad support among Republicans in Congress.

Afterward, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Ross allayed fears that a Trump administration would start a trade war.

Thune, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said he had been concerned about some of Trump’s rhetoric on trade, “specifically a 35 percent tariff.”

“But I thought (Ross) did a really good job today of talking about enforcing the law, examining on a recurring basis these trade agreements, see how they’re operating, what’s working, what’s not. I was comfortable with the way he addressed those issues,” Thune added.

Trump has threatened to impose a 35 percent tariff on U.S. companies that move operations abroad and then attempt to import goods back into the U.S.

The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the U.S. and abroad. The department handles trade issues, working to attract foreign investment to the U.S. The department also oversees agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct a census in 2020.

Ross said he has experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.

Worth an estimated $2.9 billion, Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. Supporters say that makes him ideal to represent American business interests abroad.

Unlike the president-elect, Ross has agreed to divest himself from a vast financial empire.


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