Republicans from a series of key states with large agriculture and livestock industries pushed President Donald Trump on Thursday to address their concerns with his recent trade rhetoric, seeking concessions to protect crop and livestock producers from a possible trade war with China.
Trump has engaged in a tit-for-tat trade escalation with China for the last month, with each country promising to impose tariffs on imported products from each country. While Trump has focused his ire on steel, aluminum and cracking down on intellectual property violations by China, the Chinese have taken aim at politically powerful industries like soybean farmers, pork and beef producers and citrus growers.
The trade escalation has rattled even staunchly pro-Trump Republicans from farm states, leading many to question the President’s rhetoric on China and asking him to consider the repercussions.
“Hopefully the President is just blowing off steam again but, if he’s even half-serious, this is nuts,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said earlier this month in response to the tit-for-tat with China. “This is the dumbest possible way” to confront the country.
On Thursday, Trump met face to face with Sasse and some of those lawmakers who were critical of his decision. According to lawmakers in attendance, the back and forth was frank and direct and the lawmakers pressed on the collateral damage farmers could become in a trade war with China.
Publicly, even, lawmakers in the meeting acknowledged that they pushed the President.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a powerful Iowa Republican who has long represented the most prolific pork producing state in the country, tweeted that the lawmakers “each expressed concerns to the Pres (about) nervousness among farmers (because) of possible retaliation against agriculture.”
Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who faces a tough reelection in November, told CNN that “farm prices are significantly down” and that the tough trade talk was not helping the issue.
“Our farmers and ranchers in Nebraska cannot take much more and we need to protect our nation’s ag economy,” Bacon said. “It is important that our trade deals promote our state’s strong agriculture industry. I also ensured the President’s staff knew that tariffs, especially those on ethanol, would have negative impacts on our state.”
Bacon is expected for face former Rep. Brad Ashford in the November election. The Democrat seized on the news earlier this month.
“Attention soybean growers, pork producers and the Nebraska businesses and communities that depend on them in #NE02, you can express your opposition to Trump’s trade wars, by voting against one of his biggest enablers @RepDonBacon this November,” he wrote.
And Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement that there is “uncertainty around the disruption tariffs may cause.”
“During the discussion, I urged the President to put a continued focus on expanding markets for agriculture,” Ricketts said. “He listened and expressed a commitment to growing international trade so we can grow opportunities for our farmers and ranchers.”
Trump has looked to explain the impact on farmers by arguing that the group – many of whom voted for him in 2016 – were “patriots” and would be helped by the trade negotiations in the long run.
“If during the course of a negotiation they want to hit the farmers, because they think that hits me, I wouldn’t say that’s nice,” Trump said on China earlier this month.
On Thursday, flanked by the senators, congressmen and governors, Trump made a similar argument by stating that farmers are “going to do fantastically well” after the trade negotiations. He pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a long-standing deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico, to make it “great” for agriculture.
As a way to appease the Senators on Thursday, Trump directed Larry Kudlow, his new top economic adviser, and Robert Lighthizer, his top trade negotiator, to take another look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a massive multi-national agreement that he withdrew from in his first week in office.
Sasse told reporters that Trump, while being pressed on the impact breaking away from the trade deal had on agriculture, directed his aides to take another look.
“Clearly, it’s a deliberative process and the President is a guy who likes to … entertain a lot of different ideas,” said Sasse. “But he multiple times reaffirmed the point that TPP might be easier for us to join now once the TPP-11 is aligned and we might be the 12th party to those negotiations, as opposed to the long process that it took to get to TPP.”
Sasse said the decision would be the “best thing the United States can do to push back against Chinese cheating.”
There are electoral implications in a possible trade war with China. Many of the states and districts with considerable industries under threat of Chinese tariffs have key House and Senate races in 2018, meaning a full-scale trade conflict with the Asian nation could sour reliably Republican voters on the President at a critical time.