Charlotte’s DiMicco could be in line for job influencing U.S. trade policies

Dan DiMicco has joined President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and could join his administration to influence trade matters.
Dan DiMicco has joined President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and could join his administration to influence trade matters. AP

Dan DiMicco, the former head of a Charlotte-based steel company who has praised Donald Trump’s assault on U.S. free-trade deals, is leading the presidential transition in a key trade area and could join Trump’s administration.

The president-elect vowed in his campaign to protect American businesses and jobs by canceling or renegotiating what he assailed as the “disastrous trade deals” of the last 25 years.

DiMicco’s public support of a radical shift in the U.S. approach to globalization – he has accused China of “rampant and destructive” cheating on trade deals – led to his advisory role with Trump’s campaign. After Trump’s victory last week, DiMicco was put in charge of the transition team’s preparations for reshaping the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

However, Trump’s transition team did send one curious signal with its appointment of Rolf Lundberg, a former top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He was selected for a separate transition team and assigned to oversee the implementation of trade policy reform, raising the spectre that sharp differences could develop among Trump’s advisers.

Major multinational firms belonging to the Chamber, such as General Electric, favor opening world markets with few constraints. While Trump has opposed U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal with a dozen Asian nations, the Chamber endorses it. It’s not clear to what degree Lundberg’s personal positions align with the Chamber’s, but he served as an outside lobbyist for his ex-employer as recently as 2013.

Alan Tonelson, who writes RealityChek, a blog about trade issues, and has collaborated extensively with DiMicco, said the chamber’s views “are quite diametrically opposed to the ones that Dan and I generally hold.”

“That’s got the potential for creating an interesting tension,” Tonelson said in a phone interview.

DiMicco, reached by phone on Monday, declined to comment.

DiMicco built Nucor Corp. into the nation’s largest steel company, winning accolades during his stewardship. In 2005, BusinessWeek proclaimed Nucor as the nation’s No. 1 company, based on sales, growth and return on investment. A key company principle, put in place by founder Ken Iverson, was that no employee would be laid off during a downturn.

DiMicco’s inclusion in the transition planning has fed speculation that he might be a candidate to serve as either the next U.S. Trade Representative or as secretary of commerce, a Cabinet-level job with responsibilities for promoting U.S. exports, as well as a role in setting trade policies.

“I think he’d be great,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of unionized steelworkers and the companies that employ them. “Dan’s trade policy and our trade policy are cut from the same cloth. In the Republican business space, I could not think of a better candidate than Dan DiMicco to serve in this administration.”

Thomas Gibson, president and chief executive officer of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said in a statement that DiMicco is “a strong advocate for our industry and for manufacturing in the United States.”

DiMicco’s role “is certainly key to focusing on stronger trade enforcement against dumping and subsidies and other key issues of concern to steel,” he said.

During a dozen years at Nucor’s helm, DiMicco became increasingly outspoken about the failure of U.S. trade deals and ways that its trading partners were evading them. Nucor was among U.S. steelmakers that filed complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission over the last 15 years charging that countries from China and Japan to Brazil and France were violating the agreements and exporting steel products to the United States at less than fair value.

At the same time, American steel companies began to remake themselves into a North American industry, not one limited to the United States. During DiMicco’s tenure, Nucor formed a joint venture with a Japanese company to open a plant in Mexico, where auto production is booming.

Those steps haven’t muted DiMicco on trade deals.

“Mr. Trump’s plan won’t cause a trade war,” as his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, alleged, DiMicco wrote last April. “We have been in one for more than 20 years and have yet to join the fight.” He said Trump and Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival in the Democratic primaries, “are both right on U.S. trade policy being a massive failure.”

DiMicco accuses China of lowering the value of its currency in a manipulation aimed at encouraging exports and raising the cost of goods imported from the United States and elsewhere.

Tonelson said the U.S. steel industry is the primary user of trade law because it has kept most of its production in the United States.

DiMicco, he said, would be a major proponent of using those laws “to combat predatory foreign trace practices,” including government subsidies to give their steel companies a competitive edge.

If DiMicco became part of the Trump administration, “he would be extremely interested in developing trade cases where the main plaintiff was the U.S. government, rather than specific private companies,” Tonelson said.

“He’s certainly known as a straight shooter,” he said of DiMicco, “and he’s not at all shy about expressing himself. I have a strong feeling that that’s one of the common characteristics that have attracted him and the president-elect to each other.”

McClatchy Washington correspondent Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2