Sen. Thune on Wilbur Ross, Trump’s trade policy and entitlements

On Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump announced billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as his choice to head the Department of Commerce. Hari Sreenivasan asks Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a leading Senate Republican, about how Ross’ business dealings will be evaluated for potential conflicts of interest, Mr. Trump’s approach to trade policy and the expected economic priorities of the new government.

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    For more on the latest Cabinet nominations, their potential conflicts of interest and the Republican Party's priorities under a President Trump, I'm joined by the number three Senate Republican, Senator John Thune.

    Thank you for joining us.

    Quick order of business. When the Senate goes into the confirmation process for the new commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, will the Senate ask Mr. Ross to put all his assets into a blind trust and perhaps step off the board of the world's largest steel company?


    Yes, well, good evening, Hari.

    And, obviously, the Commerce Committee, which I chair, will be processing his paperwork and the confirmation of the next commerce secretary, as well as DOT and a few others.

    But we obviously be looking at his background and have those discussions as we begin to sort of drill down a little bit and ask the questions not only prior to, but at the confirmation hearing, about what his intentions are with respect to his business dealings.

    And as has been the case, at least with most Cabinet secretaries, they find a way to insulate themselves from their business world and to focus on the jobs at hand.


    As you know, the International Trade Administration, which sits under commerce, sets the tariff policies to make sure that companies aren't dumping products into — onto our soil. If he still has stakes in companies, the person, couldn't he profit personally from the policies that he as commerce secretary could set?


    Well, those are questions that we will be looking at and he will have to answer before our committee.

    Obviously, Penny Pritzker, the current secretary of commerce, when she went through the confirmation process, we asked a lot of these questions. And she ended up taking some steps with respect to her business that made sure that there wouldn't be those types of conflicts of interest. And I would expect the same thing to happen here.


    All right, now if Mr. — Mr. Ross has also indicated a fairly nationalist trade policy. And this lines up quite welcome with the president-elect.

    Mr. Trump has said that he wants to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on day one. He's criticized NAFTA repeatedly on the campaign trail. What would the impact of withdrawing from NAFTA or putting 35 percent trade tariffs against Chinese products, what kind of impact would that have on your state and other states like it?


    Well, I'm certainly not somebody who is a fan of those types of measures.

    Obviously, I think we have to be engaged in the global marketplace. Representing an agriculture state that's very dependent upon exports, I want us to have robust trading relationships, where we can interact with other countries around the world and get access to that marketplace.

    Now, how the new administration decides to do that remains to be seen. They have talked about undoing TPP and instead engaging in a number of bilateral-type trade agreements. However they decide to go about it, I think the important thing is that we be engaged in the global marketplace, not only for economic reasons, for trade, for the vitality of our economy in places like the Midwest, but also for national security reasons.

    I think that we need to be engaged in these places in the world on an economic basis, because it does lead to so many other issues where we have issues and concerns in some of these regions.


    And you are part of the congressional leadership now. You all sort of run the board, so to speak. You have got the Senate. You have got the House. You have got the White House.

    What are the legislative priorities? What are the things that we can expect quick action on?


    Well, I think the one thing that we will probably be most focused on early on is the economy.

    What can we do to get the growth rate back up to 3 or 4 percent? This is the first administration where we haven't had a single year where economic growth has exceeded 3 percent. It's the worst recovery in 60 years. And in the exit polling in the election this year, 62 percent of Americans said the country is on the wrong track, and 52 percent of them said the economy should be the number one issue.

    So, we're going to be looking at things that we can do to unleash the economy. And that, I think, means dealing with a regulatory burden that's making it more expensive and more difficult to create jobs, repealing and replacing Obamacare, tax reform that is pro-growth and looks at what we can do to unleash entrepreneurs in our economy to get the growth rate back up and wages up.

    Those are a series of things that I think you will see a very intense focus on right away.


    Speaking of reform, I know you're an advocate for reform when it comes to federal retirement benefits, Social Security, Medicare. Any action on that likely?


    It's hard to say.

    I think it wasn't something that the president-elect, at least early on in his agenda, articulated as something that he wanted to accomplish. But I think we all recognize that, if you look at the actuarial balances of some of these programs, Social Security, Medicare, for example, we have to make them sustainable for future generations.

    And that means we have got to take steps to strengthen them today. And I think the sooner we get started on that, the better. I'm not saying when that is going to happen. I think, as I mentioned before, early on, this new incoming president has an agenda he wants to accomplish. We look forward to working with him.

    But I hope that we engage on this issue of entitlement reform at some point in a way that preserves those programs, not just for people who depend upon them today, but for future generations of Americans as well.


    All right, Senator John Thune, thanks so much.


    Thanks, Hari.

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