Trump-appointed staff at USTR delay Biden transition

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Officials at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative appointed by President Donald Trump are delaying the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s team by refusing to schedule meetings, according to officials with knowledge of the situation.

No meetings yet: USTR political staff members are still rebuffing efforts from Biden’s transition landing team to meet with career staff at the agency, said one former trade official familiar with the situation.

If meetings are scheduled in the future, USTR has made clear that a Trump political appointee will have to be present with the career staffers, the former official said.

Smooth handoff threatened: Meetings between career staff and transition officials are typically used to ensure that an incoming administration is up to date on an agency’s plans and actions. If the freeze continues, it could mean Biden’s USTR team will come into office without the latest information on the agency’s pending tariff investigations or negotiations with foreign countries, like ongoing trade talks with the U.K. and Kenya.

Hopes for thaw: The Biden transition did not comment, but another source with knowledge of transition planning said the president-elect’s team is hopeful USTR will soon relent and allow consultations with staff.

“On their abbreviated timeline, the USTR agency review team continues to do everything it can to make progress,” the source said. “We are hopeful for increased collaboration.”

Lighthizer ignores election result: The struggle comes as USTR Robert Lighthizer has refused to publicly acknowledge Biden’s win while he seeks to wrap up a number of policy initiatives, like an inquiry into Vietnam’s currency practices that could bring new tariffs before he leaves office Jan 20.

In an interview with the BBC last week, Lighthizer evaded a question about accepting Biden’s victory, instead claiming ignorance about the state of Trump’s legal appeals to overturn the election.

“One thing I don’t know a lot about is all the litigation and all the stuff that’s surrounding the election. That’s just not something I’m an expert on,” he said in the rare media appearance. “I have my own feelings that it was amazing that President Trump got 74 million votes and I’m very proud of that.”

The agency did not respond to a request for comment on the transition, the election, or whether Lighthizer has congratulated Biden’s pick to be the next USTR, staff attorney at House Ways and Means Katherine Tai.

DoD transition also stalled: The delay at USTR comes after Trump’s officials at the Department of Defense clashed over meetings late last week with the Biden transition. In that case, the DoD team claimed the sides had agreed to halt meetings for the holidays, while Biden’s team said there was no such deal.

Doug Palmer contributed to this report.

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