Transcript: Amb. Robert Lighthizer on "Face the Nation," December 9, 2018

March 1 a "hard deadline" for China deal, U.S. trade rep says

The following is a transcript of the interview with Amb. Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, that aired Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to "Face the Nation." Following President Trump's seemingly successful meeting last week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Mr. Trump declared himself by tweet to be a tariff man. That word set the stage for some stock market turmoil. Major U.S. market indices took about a 4 percent plunge and there are other uncertainties weighing on the markets including questions about American interest rates. 

We'd like to now welcome to "Face the Nation" Ambassador Robert Lighthizer to the broadcast. He is the U.S. trade representative. Obviously a very key voice in these talks but I want to quickly get to a matter of domestic politics first. The New York Times is reporting that you are one of the candidates being considered for the chief of staff job to step into the role being vacated by John Kelly. Is that a job you want?

U.S. TRADE REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: I mean let me say first of all, I love John Kelly. You'll- in your whole life you won't meet 50 people with his qualities of character and grit and- and determination and devotion. And so I really think is- he's done a great job for the president. Having said that now, the- the president has given me what-what is a very difficult job. I'm very, very happy doing it. And if I focus on it entirely there's some reasonable chance I'll get it done well. So I'm- I'm- I'm flattered that the president wants me to be United States Trade Representative working closely with him and I hope to accomplish the goals that he set out for me in that- in that job.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well you've got a big job but just to be clear has anyone at the White House talked to you about chief of staff?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: No.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what I'm hearing from you is you're not interested in the job?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: I'm- I haven't spoken to anyone. I'm- I'm entirely focused on what I'm trying to do and- and it's difficult enough.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It is. Let's get into that then. Today we heard from Beijing that they have summoned the United States ambassador and- and demanded some answers about this question regarding Chinese telecom company, Huawei, and one of their top executives who was taken into custody in Canada this week at U.S. request. How is all of this going to impact the talks that you're leading?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Well it's my view that it shouldn't really have much of an impact. I can understand from the Chinese perspective how they would see it that way. This is a- a criminal justice matter. It is totally separate from anything that I work on or anything that- that the trade policy people in the administration work on. So, for us, it's unrelated, it's criminal justice. We have a lot of very big, very important issues. We've got serious people working on them, and I don't think they'll be affected by this.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Has President Trump offered that, I guess comfort, to President Xi? I mean has he talked to him after the CFO of Huawei was taken into custody?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Not that I'm aware of.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because for Beijing since they have direct interest in this company and they're warning there are gonna be consequences many are wondering if this adds up to essentially a threat that it could impact the talks.

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: It's entirely a criminal justice matter. It has nothing to do with anything I'm working on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, you do have talks scheduled to begin when?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: We have- we have conversations ongoing. We have had conversations ongoing for over a year on- on- on these matters and-and they will continue. We have phone calls and we'll set up other meetings, there's been a lot going on over the time. I really think with all this talk about a trade war, it's important to pull back for a second and say that trade really has increased very much in the last year. It's not down it's up, exports are- are- are really up. Imports are up, which I'm not as happy about, but imports are up. Trade is up. The United States is- is very much engaged in trade and is- and is doing so very successfully at this time.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This isn't just any trade negotiation though. This is the world's two largest economies who are locked in this dispute at the moment. So one of the biggest sticking points here has been China's - it's accused of intellectual property theft - it's been accused of this for years and years and years. The president says he wants to maintain U.S. dominance in technology. So what exactly did the Chinese need to do for you to come to agreement?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: So- so let's just put on the- on the table a little bit of background. China has a policy of-of theft of intellectual property from American and other companies from forced technology transfer and from cyber theft and then state capitalism to buy up technology. Technology is the most important advantage that Americans have economically. We are innovators and we are excellent at technology. So you have a policy from China that's designed really to get at this technology and not economic grounds. And it is one of the most important elements of the U.S. So the president said do a study, to us at USTR. We did a whole of government study. We spent eight months we came out with the report. The president then put in place tariffs in order to get China to change this policy. It's extremely important that China does that. That it opens its market and that it takes these steps. So what are--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But they promised to do things like that before. This is an inherent part of the Chinese business model. Is it not?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: You- you- you are completely right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So why did they change now?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: The first time this came up was 1991 under the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. In the last six years of the Obama administration alone, they made 10 independent claims or commitments to get rid of some of these things. I believe the reason is now this president has a determination that past presidents have not had. He realizes the seriousness of it. We've- we've followed a different strategy. It's not just a dialogue strategy it's a strategy of tariffs, and taking hard lines and this president is determined. In addition to that, I think he has a very good relationship with President Xi. And I think that will be another positive factor. But- but in this case what- what we need- we need structural changes and we need market opening. So we need agricultural sales and manufacturing sales and the like, and we need structural changes on this fundamental issue of- of non-economic technology transfer.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And- and what happens if they don't agree to that as these sweeping changes. I mean should the U.S. consider a ban on Chinese technology companies? You had Senator Marco Rubio on this program saying that he wants to introduce legislation in the new Congress to do something like that.

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Well right now the way this is set up is, that at the end of 90 days, and once again this is as you say years, but even in our case over a year of negotiations. At the end of 90 days these tariffs will be raised on two hundred billion dollars from 10 percent to 25 percent- if we don't get a satisfactory solution. My hope right now is to focus on that. If there is a deal to be done we'll make it. The president wants us to make a deal. But as you say it has to be verifiable. It has to be moderated. It can't be just vague promises like we've seen over the last twenty five years.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you-you have until March, but you could extend these talks. That's not a hard deadline?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: As far as I'm concerned it's a hard deadline. When I talked to the president of the United States he's not talking about going beyond March. He's talking about getting a deal. If there is a deal to be gotten, we want to get it in the next 90 days.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The tariffs you're talking about don't have to do with technology though. In the technology space, will you take action against Chinese firms? Should we expect more actions like the arrest of the Huawei CFO? I know you say that the crime doesn't directly link here but there are those who say Chinese telecom should be completely banned from American companies.

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Well, it's not my position that we should ban telecom from from China into the United States. It certainly is true that there will be continuing criminal justice matters that'll go on. It'll come up. There's been a number of indictments, there's been a number of actions in this space generally. For me those are separate. They're separate from the negotiations. We're looking for structural change and we're looking for market access. That's what we're looking- the criminal justice process will continue. We have an independent system as you know in this country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when the markets open tomorrow can they be reassured that these talks with Beijing are happening and that you're making progress?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: They can be reassured that if there is a deal that can be made that- that will require or assure the- the- the protection of U.S. technology, the very heart bed of all of our economy it's not just technology it's everything from services to manufacturing even farming is a technology industry now in the United States. We will protect that technology and- and- and get additional market access from China. If that can be done, the president wants us to do it. If not, we'll have tariffs.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That is a very big if.

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: It-it-it, well, we'll see. It certain- there's a long- it's it is a very important matter and there's a long history of-of having things not work out. So you're right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Very quickly the free trade deal you did renegotiate which is with Mexico and Canada USMC a new NAFTA. How quickly will that move through Congress?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Well there's a process under the trade promotion authority, so I'm expecting in the next months that it will have a vote on. I would say this is--

MARGARET BRENNAN: In the New Year?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: Certainly within the next few months. This is the strongest and best trade agreement the United States has- has ever negotiated. It's the biggest, it's one point two trillion dollars worth of economy, worth of trade. It's the best on labor, it's the best on manufacturing. The IP protections are unheard of in the past. We have- we have currency provisions in there. We have this whole digital trade, financial services. There is a lot of very- very important innovation in here, built on things that people done in the past. It's the most far reaching agreement the United States has ever negotiated and I believe we'll be a model for future negotiations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When will- when will the president withdraw from the existing NAFTA that he has said he's going to do?

AMB. LIGHTHIZER: We'll see that. That-that's a decision that's up to the president of the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right. Thank you very much for coming on ambassador.