By William Mauldin

President Donald Trump's pick for U.S. trade czar represented the Brazilian government during a trade dispute with American industry three decades ago, an issue that could complicate his confirmation under U.S. law.

Robert Lighthizer, a longtime partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, signed an agreement for his firm to work for a part of the Brazilian Ministry of Industry and Commerce on a dispute involving the ethanol trade, according to a letter from Mr. Lighthizer included in U.S. lobbying disclosures.

Mr. Lighthizer's work with Brazil was related to a trade case between the U.S. and Brazilian industries rather than a government-led dispute or set of negotiations, said Paul Rosenthal, partner at law firm Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, who is familiar with Mr. Lighthizer's career and cases.

But Senate Democrats have flagged the work as a potential concern, saying it would appear to conflict with a 1995 law that doesn't allow people who have represented foreign governments to become a U.S. trade representative or deputy U.S. trade representative.

"The Lobbying Disclosure Act has long made it illegal for anyone to be appointed to be USTR if they have represented a foreign government in a trade enforcement matter or trade negotiation involving the United States," said Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, which is considering the nomination. "The professional staff of the Finance Committee is reviewing the public documents that are referenced in the news stories to be sure we have all the facts."

Mr. Lighthizer didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Cabinet-level appointees are typically asked in a formal questionnaire if they have worked for a foreign government. Mr. Lighthizer's questionnaire hasn't been made public.

The apparent conflict doesn't mean Mr. Lighthizer will have to withdraw, and the issue could be a minor matter, depending on how lawmakers handle it in the Finance Committee and the broader Senate.

"I don't see it as a problem," Mr. Rosenthal said. Cases such as the Brazil example "are not negotiations between the U.S. government and a foreign government per se."

A Trump spokesman said Mr. Lighthizer will be "an outstanding United States Trade Representative. His nomination has the full confidence of the White House."

Many Democrats support Mr. Lighthizer's tough stance on China and legal career arguing for tariffs on foreign companies. Mr. Lighthizer has defended the U.S. steel industry from the alleged subsidy and dumping violations of Asian competitors.

Some Republicans who backfree-trade agreements and were critical of Mr. Trump's campaign rhetoric on trade haven't embraced Mr. Lighthizer as enthusiastically as Mr. Trump's other picks.

Before the legal matter came to light, Mr. Lighthizer was expected to win confirmation easily, and he may still do so.

Trade representative conveys the title "ambassador" and is considered to be a cabinet-level appointment, but the post isn't as high-profile as the top cabinet positions.

Still, Mr. Lighthizer's prior legal work could take on greater significance given Mr. Trump's heavy emphasis on trade. He has adopted an "America first" trade policy and doubled down on a desire to "drain the swamp" by limiting the power of lobbyists in Washington.

Mr. Lighthizer's agreement to work on behalf of the Brazilian sugar industry -- he worked for a government-run agency representing the industry -- appears in disclosures that require "agents" of foreign governments toregister their work in Washington.

U.S. law prevents someone who has "directly represented, aided, or advised a foreign entity in any trade negotiation, or trade dispute, with the United States" from serving as trade representative.

The text of the 1995 law that deals with the U.S. trade representative, which amended a prior law, was introduced by then-Sen. Robert Dole. Mr. Dole, a Republican who was also Senate majority leader, gave Mr. Lighthizer his first high-profile Washington job on the Senate Finance Committee in the 1980s.

Mr. Dole didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Congress has occasionally provided waivers for cabinet-level nominees who might otherwise be disqualified with U.S. law. This year retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis got a waiver on rules that would have prevented him from becoming secretary of defense because he hadn't been out of uniform long enough.

Mr. Dole's law affected Charlene Barshefsky, former President Bill Clinton's pick for trade representative, in 1997, but she received a waiver and went on to serve in the post. Ms. Barshefsky had no immediate comment on her waiver or Mr. Lighthizer's issue.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 24, 2017 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

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