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Staff exodus signals end to Biden’s trade dreams

Frustration with a stalled trade agenda and unhappiness with the leadership of President Joe Biden’s trade chief is pushing more than a half-dozen senior trade officials out the door, according to four current and former administration officials with knowledge of the departures.

The exits include the White House’s point person on international economics and two of the three deputy U.S. trade representatives responsible for implementing the Biden administration’s “worker-centered” trade policy.

The exodus comes after Biden’s trade agenda ran aground on multiple fronts in 2023: failing to reach a green steel and aluminum deal with the European Union and pulling out of trade talks that were part of the U.S.-crafted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in November. The administration, meanwhile, remains internally divided on other key trade policy decisions, like how to regulate digital information flowing across the globe.

Those headwinds — and the realization that little real progress is likely to be made in an election year during which former President Donald Trump will put a glaring spotlight on trade — have convinced some officials it’s time to move on. Adding to the frustration: simmering discontent with the management practices of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai — criticism that her allies chalk up to policy disagreements and sexism.

The wave of exits “certainly raises questions” about the trade agenda, said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), whose committee oversees trade policy and personnel. “They’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of good people.”

Some critics lay the blame at the feet of Tai, saying she has not built enough goodwill with other members of Biden’s team to effectively implement the trade agenda. That, they say, has led to conflicts with other parts of the administration, like ongoing disagreements with the National Security Council over digital trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“She’s really tough on people, and she hasn’t figured out a way to have relationships in other parts of the administration, which is how you do your job,” said one official familiar with the staffing issues. “The morale [problem] is more about that than anything else. Other agencies aren’t having these kinds of departures.”

Biden’s team balks at the criticisms. Each of the officials leaving the team has planned their departure for months, people close to the administration said, and the White House insists that its global economic efforts will continue unabated. The departing team members have each served for years, they add, many of them have young children, and they’ve already made significant progress reforming longstanding economic rules that took decades to build up.

“Three years on, there has been a robust continuity among staff members at USTR, with an impressive number still proudly working alongside the ambassador despite the rigors and sacrifices that come with public service,” said a spokesperson for the trade representative’s office. “Ambassador Tai has complete confidence in her team’s ability to deliver on the President’s international economic agenda, one that positions the U.S. to compete and win on the global stage while putting American workers at the forefront of our trade policies.”

Tai’s allies on the Hill and in the administration wave away criticisms of her management style, arguing they are more about staff members who disagreed with her aggressive pursuit of worker-friendly trade policies than complaints about an abnormally tough boss.

“Katherine Tai follows through on President Biden’s directive that our trade policy must be employee-centered and focus on more investment here in the United States, particularly in growing our manufacturing base. It’s no surprise that people who spent their entire careers trying to row the boat in the opposite direction are not happy,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of Tai’s staunchest allies on the Hill. “With where the office goes now, it’s pretty hard for [departing staff] to go out and say that their problem is based on policy, and a lot easier to claim that they are leaving for other reasons. So, I’m just not buying it.”

Other Tai supporters say the criticisms ring of sexism, saying that past trade representatives have been much tougher on staff than Tai, but did not receive similar criticisms. One staff member who has served under six trade representatives said she’s much less harsh than some of her predecessors.

“She doesn’t come down on people,” said the staffer. “She kicks the tires on arguments. And sometimes those arguments don’t hold up.”

Those policy and personnel issues are happening amid a growing realization that the president’s trade agenda could become a political liability during an election year. Biden is girding for a rematch against Trump — a figure who scrambled the politics of foreign trade in the 2016 election with a populist message that cast anything other than protectionist moves as a betrayal of American workers.

Biden’s “worker-centered” trade agenda was designed to smooth over frayed relations with close trading partners and win back those blue-collar workers in battleground states. But his sweeping plans to reshape global trade rules haven’t assuaged concerns from Democrats who worry that Trump will again use trade issues as a cudgel against them in the industrial Midwest — a region that could determine control of Congress and the White House in November.

That disconnect has forced USTR to freeze, abandon, or dramatically scale back its signature initiatives and negotiations, leaving some top lawmakers and staffers frustrated. In particular, Wyden and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) are fuming that the administration hasn’t matched the Trump administration’s accomplishments on trade, like the binding labor and environmental standards that Democrats got inserted into the rewrite of NAFTA that Trump signed in 2020.

“Sen. Brown and I have consistently said that you need the kind of proposal that you saw in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement where you open up markets for business and you have tough enforcement,” said Wyden, “and a lot of what’s been put up doesn’t meet that test.”

Despite the discontent, officials close to Tai say that she still has the confidence of the president and is not planning a departure before the end of the term. But the administration’s early efforts to fill the trade vacancies are already running into trouble.

Nelson Cunningham, Biden’s pick to be deputy trade representative, is running up against skepticism from Wyden and outright opposition from other senior Democrats. They worry his decades as a corporate consultant in D.C. will mean he represents the interests of large companies more than workers — exactly the critique Biden has been trying to avoid.

“We built a new policy, and it’s like this crowd — and this fellow — don’t understand that,” Wyden said, referring to the administration and Cunningham.

“We should not have anyone leading our trade policy who advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have been a terrible deal for Ohio workers,” said Brown, who is facing a tough reelection campaign in trade-skeptical Ohio. He announced on Wednesday that he will oppose the Cunningham nomination.

Lawmakers who will have to run on White House trade policies in the coming months say they will keep the pressure on the administration to not retreat further.

“I think this administration wants to do the right thing,” said Brown. “I just help them keep their focus there. That’s my job.”

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