Table For 12, Please: Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative

Katherine Tai is the only Asian American woman appointed to a Cabinet-level position under Biden and is the first woman of color to serve as the U.S. trade representative in its 60-year history.

Table For 12, Please: Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative
(Pat Mitchell Media)

In the history of the United States, no presidential Cabinets have ever matched the gender or racial balance of the country. But America could soon see its most diverse Cabinet ever—with the first Native American secretary of the interior; first Latino homeland security chief; first openly gay Cabinet member and more. In two departments—Treasury and Intelligence—there has never been a woman in charge … until now. Altogether, Biden has announced 12 women in his Cabinet, the most ever.

To celebrate the historic number of women and women of color in Biden’s Cabinet, media thought leader Pat Mitchell is kicking off a new series: “Table for 12,” which will appear on PatMitchellMedia.comand be republished here at
Ms.—every week!

This Week: Katherine Tai

Table For 12, Please: Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative
(Pat Mitchell Media)

When President Biden announced Katherine Tai, a trade lawyer with a history of taking on China, as his pick for the country’s top trade representative, he said, “She understands that we need … to be considerably more strategic than we’ve been in how we trade. And that makes us all stronger.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Tai as “one of our country’s most seasoned experts in international trade,” reports CNN, calling her nomination a “great contrast” to the “tragedy” of Asian American discrimination during the pandemic and so brutally evident in the recent murders of Asian women in my hometown of Atlanta.

Tai is the only Asian American woman appointed to a Cabinet-level position under Biden and is the first woman of color to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative in its 60-year history. She was confirmed on March 17 by a rare unanimous vote in the Senate (98–0, with two senators absent), making her the only member of Biden’s Cabinet to be confirmed with no opposition.

Tai was sworn into office by Vice President Kamala Harris on March 18, which also happens to be Tai’s birthday, and in her Day One Message to USTR staff, she wrote, “Getting sworn in yesterday by the first female, African American, and Asian American vice president is the best possible birthday present.”

“Freakishly Smart.” “Tough.” “Fantastic.” 

An intensely private person, Tai has kept the names of her husband and family out of the press since her nomination, “another notable achievement in gossip-hungry Washington,” writes Michael Hirsh in Foreign Policy, but this much we know.

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Tai’s parents were born in mainland China and immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the late 1960s. In her opening statement at her confirmation hearing, Tai told senators, “The immigration reforms set in motion by President Kennedy opened a path for them to come here as graduate students in the sciences. And they made the most of their American opportunity.”

Tai grew up in a Washington, D.C. suburb, attending the prestigious Sidwell Friends Academy. Her father was a researcher at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center working to advance treatments for Vietnam War veterans, and her mother still works for the National Institutes of Health focused on treatments for opioid addiction. 

Tai studied history at Yale University and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. She lived in China for two years teaching English as a Yale-China Fellow. She speaks fluent Mandarin, an asset that former top White House trade negotiator Clete Willems says will “command respect” at the negotiating table with Chinese officials. 

Tai will work to restore relations that were strained during the Trump administration and help to shape the Biden administration’s China policy. “Among her first tasks,” reports The Washington Post, “will be advising the president on what to do about existing tariffs on most imported Chinese products, presiding over enforcement of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and seeking a negotiated end to a long-running commercial dispute with the European Union.”

For many years, Tai worked as a congressional staff lawyer and served at the USTR as chief counsel for China trade enforcement from 2011-2014. She “spent years in the Obama administration fighting trade complaints against China,” says NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe. “She gained a reputation for her deep knowledge and skillful handling of complex cases.”

In 2017, Tai was named Democratic chief trade counsel for the Ways and Means committee. She won “significant praise for her role in negotiating changes to the draft version of a new North American trade deal, which helped satisfy Democratic trade skeptics without alienating U.S. negotiating partners.”

“In marathon bargaining sessions,” reports The Washington Post, “Tai helped design a creative approach to enforcing workers’ rights in Mexico, which involved the right to challenge the operations of individual Mexican factories.”

Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Tai’s boss at the time, said he told her she “should get a Nobel Prize in economics” at the end of the talks.

Table For 12, Please: Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative
Katherine Tai on Dec. 14, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Under her leadership, she told senators the USTR would work to advance  workers’ rights and environmental policies in U.S. trade agreements. China’s use of forced labor in the Xinjiang province, is “a top priority,” she said. “The use of forced labor is probably the crudest example of the race to the bottom” in global trade. 

On her first day on the job, she told her staff: “I am looking forward to getting to work immediately.” Given all the significant challenges we face, including “the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing racial and gender equity, addressing the challenges posed by China, and more—we will have to walk, chew gum and play chess at the same time.” 

Given her experience and her personal focus, there are few who would doubt that Katharine Tai can do all that—and more.

“Meeting this moment will require us all to have an open mind,” she continued, “and embrace the tremendous possibilities that can come from thinking outside the box. It means looking at old problems in new ways, and looking at new problems in even newer ways. And it includes actively embracing a more diverse and inclusive team while engaging stakeholders and communities that trade policy often overlooks.”

A heartfelt feminist welcome to the table, U.S. Trade Representative Tai. 

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Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.