COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — President Donald Trump is determined to stay in the good graces of America’s farmers even as his trade policies threaten their livelihoods.
Trump returned to Iowa on Tuesday in his first trip to the state since before the 2018 midterm election. And this time he faced a state where 23 Democrats have been hammering the president nonstop — about trade and everything else — in their bids to oust him from the White House.
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The president focused most of his remarks here on trade and ethanol, but he managed to sneak in a jab at former Vice President Joe Biden, who he had repeatedly criticized on Twitter and in remarks to reporters earlier Tuesday on his way out of Washington.
“He was someplace in Iowa today and he said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore,” Trump said of the man the president views as his chief Democratic rival. “‘No. Don’t keep saying it.’ Sleepy guy.”
But even as he traded barbs with Biden, Trump had a separate mission in mind: reassuring Iowa’s anxious agriculture sector.
“Within a year and a half, I would say, you’ll be in the best position you’ve been in in 15 years as farmers. And you deserve it,” Trump said. He added later: “Under my administration we will always protect and defend our great American patriot farmer. Always.”
The president sought to draw a contrast between his administration and those of his predecessors — including Biden, by extension. “Past administrations did nothing while the farm income declined,” Trump said at one point. “But we are turning it all around and we’ve turned it all around and wait until you see the real numbers start coming in when it all comes together.”
In fact, farmers are being battered by some of their worst conditions in decades in part due to Trump’s trade war that has sent agricultural exports plummeting. Biden, speaking in the state Tuesday, said “there are a heck of a lot of Iowans being crushed by his tariffs” who would like to see details of a secret deal Trump says he struck with Mexico.
With fear rippling through the state’s agriculture sector, Trump used the speech, which was staged in an ethanol facility, to tick off a list of things he’s doing for Iowa, from overturning regulations to assisting the state with recent flooding to signing an executive order to speed up reviews of biotechnology needed by farmers.
He also reminded voters of his recent decision to allow year-round sales of E15 fuel, a boon to the state’s powerful corn industry. “I fought very hard for ethanol,” Trump said, adding that E15 sales are projected to double this year as a result of his policy change.
And he made the case that his trade agenda will ultimately be a boon to farmers, even if it means short-term pain.
“Somebody had to do it. You knew we had to do it. We couldn’t take it any longer. Nations all over the world were ripping off the United States like never, ever before,” Trump said. “Whether it’s China or so many others that I won’t mention, including our allies. Sometimes our allies did a better job of it than our enemies.”
Trump encouraged Iowans to pressure House Democrats to approve the new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal. “You have to get out and push the Democrats to put it up because they’d rather see our country do badly than give us a victory,” he said.
Farmers remain a key constituency for Trump, especially in a crucial state like Iowa, which he carried by nine points in 2016. So far, farmers’ concerns about Trump’s trade policies haven’t translated into a major deterioration of support for Trump among Republicans here. Polls show that the vast majority of Iowa Republicans still support the president. But some White House officials and other allies of the president privately worry that goodwill won’t last forever, especially if the trade dispute between China and the United States isn’t resolved soon. They’ve taken steps to appease U.S. farmers, sending billions of dollars in aide to farmers.
Yet Trump shows no signs of backing down from his trade agenda. Though the administration reached an agreement with Mexico that averted a new round of stiff tariffs on the United States’ southern neighbor, Trump this week again reiterated his preference for hitting other nations — adversaries and allies alike — with duties in order to get what he wants. And he signaled confidence in his trade strategy with China despite widespread concerns in the agriculture sector, insisting that it’s paying off for the United States.
“Companies are leaving China right now, and they are coming here because they don’t want to pay the tariffs, and they are going to other countries,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday before leaving the White House, doubling down on his decision to hit China with 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods. “But I think that China, I can tell you, China would like to make a deal very badly.”
Over and over again, Trump has suggested that tariffs are the most important lever to extract concessions from his negotiating powers. “If we didn’t have tariffs, we wouldn’t have made a deal with Mexico,” Trump said Monday as he promoted an agreement with Mexico to crack down on illegal immigration in exchange for averting the tariffs.
That approach has some Iowa farmers terrified.
“The trade and tariff issue is huge. There’s no other way to say it,” said David Oman, an Iowa consultant who served as chief of staff to two of the state’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad and Robert Ray.
Oman added that farmers, who are already struggling after bad weather delayed their planting season, are in wait-and-see mode, hoping that Trump can reach a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to ease trade tensions.
“People are nervous and they’re looking for some resolution,” he said. “The concern is palpable.”
Trump said he is hoping to meet with Xi on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 summit in Japan later this month. The president has threatened to hit China with tariffs on an additional $300 billion in goods if the two nations can’t reach an agreement.
The president’s divisive trade policies have tested the state’s political leaders, prompting Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, to push back, while simultaneously trying to maintain good relationships with the White House. Ernst traveled with Trump on Air Force One on Tuesday. Grassley, meanwhile, said earlier Tuesday he plans to move forward with legislation that would put a check on Trump’s trade powers, arguing that Congress has ceded too much authority on the issue to the executive branch.
“This is not about Trump. It’s about the balancing of power,” Grassley told reporters, being careful not to directly criticize the president.
Iowa Republican leaders maintain that the state’s farmers are willing to absorb the economic fallout from Trump’s tariffs — at least for now — if it means getting a beneficial deal with China.
“Yes, there’s concern. The nature of farming is a worrisome profession,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in an interview. But he added, “I see no signs in rural Iowa that farmers are going to abandon the president. Our farmers understand that we have to take a stand against China.”
Republican officials in the state echoed Trump’s appeal to the patriotism of farmers, calling on them to sacrifice for the good of the country.
“While you would think they might be angry because it affects them and it impacts their bottom line, most farmers are very pragmatic and they understand that this is short-term sacrifice for long-term gain,” said Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican member of the state Senate.
Others said farmers are likely to stick with Trump until a better alternative presents itself. For now, some farmers remain uncertain about the Democratic candidates, unsure about what they’d get out of a change in leadership.
“We’ve got 19 candidates running around Iowa nearly every day. You’ve got a lack of clarity in terms of who the opponent is, and that’s at least part of it,” said Kirk Leeds, the CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, whose members have been some of the hardest hit by the tariffs.
“There is an erosion of optimism, and it could turn into a lack of political support,” Leeds said. “But until there’s an alternative, I think farmers will hang in there.”
Iowa’s top agricultural exports, pork and soybeans, are two of the sectors hit hardest by Trump’s trade war. Soybean prices have slumped over the last year amid the standoff with China — a massive export market for U.S. soybeans — and in May they sunk to the lowest level in a decade when Trump announced he would hike tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods.
Hog farmers also have been stuck at the forefront of retaliation from Mexico, which is the top destination for U.S. pork exports. The National Pork Producers Council last month estimated that trade feuds with Mexico and China would end up costing pork producers about $2.5 billion over a year.
The drop in commodity prices comes on top of a five-year decline in farm income, which is about 50 percent lower than it was in 2013. The trade headaches have been exacerbated by severe flooding in the Midwest in recent months. Iowa growers lost millions of dollars worth of commodities in March when the floodwaters swamped storage sites jam-packed with crops that farmers were unable to sell because of the trade impasse.
But Trump’s defenders say farmers have taken solace in the president’s recent trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, which the administration is hoping to move through Congress in the coming months. They were also relieved that the president didn’t impose across-the-board tariffs on Mexico, a threat that was averted after the two nations reached an agreement meant to stem the tide of migrants into the United States.
“Farmers will ultimately hold the president accountable on a variety of things, trade included,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, who attended Tuesday’s ethanol event. “Farmers will reward the president if he’s able to deliver.”
Ryan McCrimmon, Natasha Korecki and Doug Palmer contributed to this report. Restuccia reported from Washington and Cook reported from Council Bluffs.