Biden “Anti-Tariff” Trade Nominee Irks Leading Democrats; Potentially Opposing Figure at USTR

USTR Cunningham

President Biden nominated five people to different government departments on Jan. 11, but the one that has generated the most response is the man picked to be the new No. 2 at USTR.  Nelson Cunningham would be the second in command at the USTR after Katherine Tai in his role as Deputy United States Trade Representative. 

Cunningham’s appointment has the potential to create an opposing force to Tai’s “worker centric trade policy.” For this reason, at least three prominent Democrats have come out against the nomination.

Michael Stumo, CEO of CPA, said, “I am concerned that Nelson Cunningham views trade in the old globalist way, that it must be facilitated free of tariffs, quotas and other strategic measures to grow our employment and protect national security. His 2016 article in the Washington Post was a direct attack on trade and industrial strategy and promotes a borderless North America. I hope he has changed but I have yet to be convinced.”

Cunningham was a top consultant at McLarty Associates in Washington where he represented multinational corporations looking to navigate legislation and trade rules. They worked with Walmart, Politico reported. But many of their clients were foreign companies. 

In 2022, the firm earned a little over $3 million from their clients, led by Canadian-based First Quantum Minerals, which has no mining operations in the U.S.

In 2019-20, McLarty Associates represented a Chinese glass company, Fuyao Glass Industry Group, which had taken over from a shuttered GM automotive glass manufacturing facility in OH. The company laid off union workers and became the subject of a film called American Factory produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. Workers’ pay at the factory was slashed in half.

He’s not a household name. Cunningham won’t be found today pontificating on the cable news shows or in the pages of the mainstream political press. But that was not always the case. Back in the 2016-18, when President Trump was about to rip up the playbook on globalization, Cunningham was everywhere from French TV in Paris to The Washington Post talking about the major shift in U.S. trade policy. He didn’t like it. He was very much against all proposed tariff hikes, calling Trump and Robert Lighthizer protectionists and isolationists.

In 2016, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post against Trump’s idea to put tariffs on Brazilian steel, for example, saying his trade policies would hurt the U.S. economy.

“What is this threat? It is the resurgence in the United States of protectionism and isolationism, nativism and xenophobia. They find their strongest embodiment in the candidacy of Donald Trump. His meteoric rise to become the presumptive Republican nominee for president is premised in large part on his promise to dismantle the cooperation across borders that is the foundation of our economic security,” Cunningham wrote, harkening back to a time when the world was panicked about a Trump presidency. To this day, all predictions that tariffs would hurt the U.S. economy have not come to fruition.

In another example, a 2018 op-ed by Cunningham in the San Francisco Chronicle seemed to chastise Silicon Valley for being upset about tariffs on tech imported from China. On one hand, he recognized China’s IP theft lost out to tech companies’ love for the China market.

“China has stolen or extorted American technology for years. Our American tech giants have reported direct and persistent efforts by Chinese interests to penetrate their trade secrets. More recently, forced technology-transfer agreements have replaced outright theft. Examples abound, from high-speed rail to solar panels to electric vehicles to every corner of the internet,” he wrote. 

On the other hand, he said making it less attractive to import from China by raising tariffs was bad.

In the Chronicle op-ed, Cunningham was against tariffs of 25 percent on $34 billion in Chinese tech products. Chinese tit-for-tat retaliation on a wide range of sensitive products shipped from the United States to China began immediately after the Section 301 tariffs were in place. Cunningham said China would retaliate. “Tariffs fly in the face of the nature of innovation,” he wrote. “America has prospered technologically for 200 years because we absorbed the best ideas and best people from everywhere in the world.” But the U.S. can still do all of those things – innovate and absorb the best ieas from the best people around the world – even with a tariff policy in place.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) expressed his disdain for Biden’s pick in a statement on Jan. 12, saying Cunningham is likely to promote the interests of borderless corporations.

“I am deeply skeptical of any nominee who has spent his career working for multinational corporations and in an administration whose trade policies failed American workers and devastated communities across my state,” he said about Cunningham’s service in the Clinton administration, which gave us NAFTA and turned the Chinese economy into the Frankenstein monster it is today by advocating for it to become a member of the World Trade Organization. “I will only support trade nominees who have rejected the failed policies of the past and have a demonstrated record of putting workers – not multinational corporations – first.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) also questioned the wisdom of teaming Cunningham with Tai. “At a time when our country is beset with trade challenges from China… the United States needs trade professionals with experience; and experience representing the interests of multinationals is not the same as considering the views of workers and small business owners,” Wyden said.

Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03) said she was “incredibly surprised” by Biden’s choice. She went through his resume and gave her critique of it in a statement saying, “From co-founding an international consulting firm with Henry Kissinger to serving as a Special Advisor in an administration whose trade policies resulted in the loss of thousands of high-quality, American manufacturing jobs across the country, Mr. Cunningham’s resume is contrary to the worker-centered trade agenda that the Biden administration is pursuing. Our trade nominees should have a track record of fighting off efforts to outsource good-paying American jobs. On these metrics, Mr. Cunningham has failed.”

For her part, Tai said he would be an “excellent addition to our team at USTR”. She made note that her policy remained focused on a “worker-centric trade agenda that benefited all Americans.”

The USTR has seen numerous resignations this month. Current Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Sarah Bianchi will leave the agency in the next few weeks.

Within trade groups, one known endorsement came from The American Apparel & Footwear Association, which represents clothing importers like Forever21 and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They endorsed Cunningham on Jan. 11 calling for a speedy approval.

Who is Nelson Cunningham?

If you were to ask someone on the streets of Washington to write up a curriculum vitae of a high level DC bureaucrat, they would write one that looks similar to Nelson Cunningham’s: magna cum laude at Yale, Stanford University law degree; lived overseas and can speak Spanish; ran an NGO or was a board member of one; Council on Foreign Relations and NATO guy at The Atlantic Council. Corporate lobbyist. 

He is a seasoned jet-setter, with friends and colleagues from the Carlyle Group and executives from lesser known NGOs. He has a particular affinity for India and Latin America more broadly. And he is concerned about the du jour issues of the mainstream liberal from North America to Europe – climate change, worries about democracy and concerns over national security in the age of AI are all top of mind in almost everything he’s done.

He is a board member of the John Kerry think tank, the American Security Project. They have a China project there. Their last report was in October and focused on China’s artificial intelligence and its military capabilities as a threat to U.S. national security, something Congress is becoming more concerned about. 

He was a vice chair at the Business Council for International Understanding, an organization that connects businesses with foreign governments to better understand policies, and pending rules in different countries. At the time, Cunningham was a board member for the U.S. India Business Council. The Council holds a similar consensus to McLarty and even the American Security Project – focusing on global businesses coping with different rules regarding climate and technology, often framed in the ambit of national security. And while many on Capitol Hill would consider national security a domestic-focused issue, the Council is more in favor of “friend-shoring” than “reshoring”. They know supply chain concentration in China is bad. But does not seem to advise for supply chains to be returned home, necessarily. 

Politically connected to the Democrats, Cunningham worked for the Clinton White House in 1998 as Special Advisor to the President on Western Hemisphere Affairs and later as a General Counsel. He also served as a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Team. He grew up outside of the U.S. (living in numerous nations in Latin America) and currently lives within the Beltway. 

Prior to his life in Washington, he was the Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1988 until 1994, and in 1984 he was a staffer on the successful Senate campaign of John Kerry.  

In a post on his LinkedIn page, Cunningham said he felt “greatly honored” to be nominated by the President. “If I am confirmed, I look forward to helping President Biden and Ambassador Tai in their mission to focus US trade policy on the workers and communities who have been left behind,” he said.

Cunningham is no stranger to Joe Biden.

He served as general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden was its chairman prior to becoming Vice President, and was an early backer of Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. 

Should his nomination go through, Cunningham will likely remain at the USTR next year in the event Biden is re-elected. 

If the current leadership at the USTR remains, Cunningham would do best sticking to his concerns over national security and worker-centric trade, and leave the “protectionist” and “isolationist” critiques to collect dust on the bookshelves in his home office. If the pre-2018 Cunningham is the same version as the post-2018 Cunningham, the top leaders of the USTR may find themselves with opposing views on trade.


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