By William Mauldin

WASHINGTON -- Robert Lighthizer, president-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the nation's chief trade negotiator, is a veteran trade lawyer with a résumé well-suited for an administration intent on curbing imports it sees as damaging to U.S. businesses.

The shift on trade is part of a bet that a tougher approach to China, Mexico and other trading partners -- including by imposing import duties -- could boost American firms without kicking off a trade war or raising the price of imported goods.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday said General Motors Co. needs to be taxed for certain versions of the Chevrolet Cruze small car that it imports from Mexico to U.S. dealers. Ford Motor Co., which Mr. Trump also has criticized, said Tuesday it was shelving plans for a small-car plant in Mexico and will add 700 jobs in Michigan producing electric vehicles.

The post of U.S. trade representative traditionally takes the lead on negotiating international trade agreements that lower overseas barriers on U.S. products sold abroad. Mr. Lighthizer, who was selected on Monday, was a deputy USTR during the Reagan administration.

If confirmed by the Senate, he would work as a member of a broader trade team that includes Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump's pick for Commerce Secretary, and economist Peter Navarro, chosen to lead a new trade council at the White House. Dan DiMicco, a former steel executive advising the incoming administration on the trade representative's office, hasn't been given a formal role.

"He is in most ways ifnot many ways in line with Mr. Trump's comments during the campaign," said Bill Brock, who briefly worked with Mr. Lighthizer when he led the U.S. trade representative's office under Reagan. "He's very bright, he's very aggressive."

After serving in the Reagan administration, helping negotiate a series of bilateral trade agreements, Mr. Lighthizer has spent three decades as a trade lawyer fighting for punitive tariffs on U.S. companies' overseas rivals. He currently serves as a partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

The Trump transition team sought to differentiate those two-country agreements, which also served a significant strategic function during the Cold War, from later deals ranging from the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, to President Barack Obama's unratified 12-nation Pacific deal.

"These agreements were uniformly tough and frequently resulted in significant reductions in the shipment of unfairly traded imports into the United States," Mr. Trump's team said of the Reagan-era deals.

"I am fully committed to President-elect Trump's mission to level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies which will benefit all Americans," Mr. Lighthizer said in a statement released by Mr. Trump's team. He didn't respond to requests for comment on whether he would seek to curb imports.

Mr. Trump's trade approach is expected to be an about-face from Mr. Obama's policy, supported by most Republican lawmakers. Mr. Obama's policy emphasized negotiating multilateral deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, in hopes of boosting exports.

Mr. Lighthizer "has had quite a different perspective on trade policy than the Republican congressional leaders and most of Trump's other cabinet nominees who have supported the TPP and every past trade deal," said Lori Wallach, senior trade expert atconsumer watchdog organization Public Citizen.

People following Mr. Trump's trade pronouncements say the new administration will be more likely to crack down on alleged trade cheating by partner countries than to negotiate new deals that reduce barriers at the border -- at least at first.

Mr. Trump and his aides have said they favor bilateral deals and could eventually start formal negotiations on an agreement with the United Kingdom, which is working to exit from the European Union. Mr. Trump may use the threat of tariffs to hammer out some sort of deal with China, a frequent target of his rhetoric in recent months, and alter Nafta to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico.

Mr. Lighthizer, in a 2011 Washington Times opinion piece, defended Mr. Trump on trade, saying the "recent blind faith some Republicans have shown toward free trade actually represents more of an aberration than a hallmark of true American conservatism."Mr. Lighthizer will have to navigate complicated international obligations embodied in the 14 free-trade agreements the U.S. has with 20 countries, the World Trade Organization, which didn't exist when he worked in the trade representative's office, and other aspects of international law. His legal experience could allay some the concerns of Trump critics who worry the president-elect would wipe away the international order and set his own rules.

Mr. Trump has already singled out some firms and used his influence to prevent heating and air-conditioner giant Carrier Corp. from moving some jobs abroad.

In a tweet sent Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump said, "General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A.or pay big border tax!"

In a statement, GM said it builds only the hatchback version of the Cruze "for global markets in Mexico, with a small number sold in the U.S." A GM spokesman declined to comment further.

The auto industry, which consumes low-cost imported steel and American-produced metal, has at times clashed with the steel industry, which has provided advisers to Mr. Trump. Messrs. Lighthizer and DiMicco have backed tariffs to defend the U.S. steel industry with tariffs on Asian competitors.

"Stuff that rusts is back in the political driver's seat in Washington," said Chris Krueger, analyst at investment bank Cowen Group Inc.

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 03, 2017 13:09 ET (18:09 GMT)

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