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The head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) said Thursday he is stepping down early, becoming the first in his position to do so in the 25-year-history of the trade body.
“This is a decision that I do not take lightly,” Roberto Azevedo, a 62-year-old Brazilian, told a special meeting of WTO delegations, according to reports by The Associated Press. “It is a personal decision -- a family decision -- and I am convinced that this decision serves the best interests of this organization.”
Azevedo's departure, which will officially take effect on Aug. 31, comes at a time when the world's economy is in tumult due to the coronavirus pandemic and when U.S. trade relations with China remain tense.
Azevedo's embattled relationship with President Trump has often yielded harsh criticism from the president, who has accused the WTO director-general of treating the U.S. unfairly.
Trump induced a trade war with China against the will of the WTO, which resulted in Beijing promising to buy at least $200 billion in additional U.S. goods and services over two years in exchange for a rollback on U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods over a period of time.
The deal -- which Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed in January -- has been heralded by Trump as one of his administration's major accomplishments.
Trump has accused the WTO of letting China get away with unfair state subsidies and for allegedly strong-arming foreign businesses into giving up their intellectual property in order to gain access to the giant Chinese market.
Trump took Azevedo's departure as an opportunity to slam the Geneva-based organization on Thursday.
“The World Trade Organization is horrible,” Trump said during a presser outside the White House before traveling to Pennsylvania. “We’ve been treated very badly. I’ve been saying it for a long time. They treat China as a developing nation, therefore China gets a lot of the benefits that the U.S. doesn’t get.”
Alluding to China's accession to the WTO in 2001, Trump added: “The people sitting in the Oval Office” before him “should never have let that happen.”
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer thanked Azevedo for his “exemplary” service.
“Despite the many shortcomings of the WTO, Roberto has led the institution with grace and a steady hand,” Lighthizer said in a statement. “He will be difficult to replace.”
The WTO never had to fill a vacancy for the director-general post before that term expired, and under WTO rules, a selection process for a successor is to begin as soon as possible.
“Regardless of how fulfilling these last 7 years have been for me, I must now end this cycle,” Azevedo said. “As members start to shape the WTO’s agenda for the new post-COVID realities, they should do so with a new director-general.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.