President Donald Trump In Iowa

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Trump Visits Midwest Farmers, Manufacturers Amid Trade War Debate

July 26, 2018 - 12:54 pm

GRANITE CITY, Ill. (WCBS 880/AP) -- President Donald Trump headed to the Midwest Thursday, where farmers and manufacturers are anxious about the escalating trade war.

Trump first visited Iowa, a state where farmers are suffering under tariffs imposed by China in retaliation for Trump's protectionist policies.

He told an audience at Northeast Iowa Community College that, "We just opened up Europe for you."

He said farmers will now have access to a big, new market and he is taking credit for the change.

The comments came a day after Trump's meeting with European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The U.S. and EU agreed to open talks to tear down trade barriers, and Trump said the EU agreed to buy more soybeans from American farmers.

Trump has enacted tariffs that have been criticized by farmers and manufacturers who warn a global trade war and retaliatory tariffs from countries like China, Mexico and Canada will damage their livelihoods.

Trump also visited a U.S. Steel plant in Granite City, Illinois northeast of St. Louis. He said he was there to "to celebrate a victory."

Trump has taken aggressive action on trade, slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. That has prompted retaliatory action from countries that farmers and others worry will hurt their bottom lines.

But U.S. Steel has credited Trump's decision to impose the steel and aluminum tariffs for its decision in March to fire up a local furnace that had sat idle for more than two years. Trump is highlighting the company's action as an example of how his "America First" economic policies are benefiting U.S. workers.

Trump said workers are back on the job in Illinois after years of shutdowns and cutbacks. He says, "We are once again pouring new American steel into the spine of our country."

Trump also lamented decades of U.S. trade policy as he addresses steel workers in Illinois. He told the workers at the Granite City Steel Coil Warehouse that other countries were able to target U.S. workers and companies and steal U.S. intellectual property.

Trump past leaders allowed the U.S. trade deficit to balloon and complains: "They surrendered."

Trump said, "If you don't have steel, you don't have a country."

Granite threw a street party — complete with hot dogs, cold beer and a singer in red, white and blue — when U.S. Steel announced earlier this year it was bringing hundreds of laid-off employees back to work at the local mill.

“What really has changed is this is a steel town, a little less than 20,000 people – traditionally a blue-collar, union, Democratic voting place – and they’re with President Trump and what he’s promised the steelworkers even before the election, now delivering with opening up what was just a limping along U.S. Steel plan here, by promoting his tariff on foreign steel today – he’s going to be talking to about 500 of them there,” said Brad Choat of KMOX NewsRadio 1120 in St. Louis. “And you know, there’s mixed feelings here, because it’s such a Democratic-leaning town. But they understand what the wealth of this means economically for the workforce.”

Local officials were pleased that Trump was coming to visit.

"Our community is excited to have the president come, and we're especially excited to see jobs coming back to Granite City," said James Amos, the city's economic development director. "To have the president of the United States visit your city feels like, maybe, icing on the cake."

Hundreds were laid off when the furnaces at the Granite City U.S. Steel plant were shut down. The plant was left only with leftover steel to fill orders, and it ended up with a glut of steel because of what they said was too much steel from China and other countries coming into the U.S., Choat said.

“So there was, you know, several hundred that were still working at that, but lots more were laid off, and now that the furnaces have been fired back up, they’re back to work,” Choat said.

Trump is also expected to tour Granite City Works' Hot Strip Mill before returning to Washington on Thursday evening.

Politico Trade Reporter Megan Cassella said politically, the areas that Trump visited Thursday were politically critical.

“I think if you look at it from a political standpoint, there are few areas of the country that are as crucial as this one. I think it’s six districts in Iowa and Illinois are a battleground for the House this year, and it’s a quarter of the seats that the Democrats need to take over the House,” Cassella said. “But politically, this is a really rich area, and policy-wise, you know, these are the farmers and manufacturers who I think are at ground zero, experiencing the breadth of the president’s trade policies. So he’s out there to convince them that he’s their guy and he’s sticking up for them.”

But not everyone is in a partying mood. Others in Illinois and the Midwest, from farmers to manufacturers and technology companies, warn a global trade war and retaliatory tariffs from countries such as China, Mexico and Canada are causing job losses. The new tariffs threaten more than $3.8 billion in Illinois exports, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says, and major Illinois-based companies including Caterpillar and Boeing already have been negatively affected.

"While we're happy Granite City has those jobs coming back, it's a lot harder to see the jobs that are lost or not created in the rest of the state because of the tariffs," said Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Todd Maisch. He described the administration's policies as "really negative" for most of Illinois, the nation's fifth-largest economy.

Richard Guebert, a farmer and president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said he told Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting last week that there's "a lot of angst" among farmers after several tough years and with another strong crop likely to lower prices this year. He worries particularly about whether young farmers will be able to keep going in a state where one of every four rows of soybeans is exported to China.

"Older, more seasoned farmers have a better asset base. They can weather storms like this," Guebert said. "The young farmers are having a definite challenge."

A $12 billion aid package the administration announced Tuesday to help farmers hurt by the trade disputes is "a start," Guebert said, but "won't make farmers whole in the face of continued trade tensions."

Factories around the region also have been hurt. Mid Continent Nail Corp. in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, has shuttered a multimillion-dollar plant and is "on the brink of extinction."

The company, which says it's the nation's largest nail manufacturer, employed 510 workers before Trump raised tariffs on June 1 but has since slashed its workforce to 370, spokesman James Glassman said. The tariffs led to a big jump in the price of steel wire, the raw material Mid Continent imports from Mexico to make nails. When Mid Continent raised its prices 25 percent, customers turned to cheaper foreign-made nails.

"This is a county that went 79 percent for Trump so people are certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Glassman said. "But their jobs are at stake because of this misguided tariff."

Trump visited Granite City with Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, whose southern Illinois district includes the steel mill as well as many farmers. The seat is one of Democrats' top targets as they look to regain control of the House this fall.

Bost, who's being challenged by St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, could get a boost from the Trump visit. While Illinois went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 thanks to large support from the Chicago area, most of Southern Illinois backed Trump.

The more than 2,000 workers laid off from Granite City Works got the notice just before Thanksgiving 2015. U.S. Steel cited low oil prices — because the mill produces steel for oil refineries and the auto industry — as well as the availability of cheap, imported steel.

Granite City Works is now near its 2015 employment level of 2,100, with a second blast furnace to be operating by this fall. Jobs there mean dozens more at steel-processing plants throughout the city that bend or cut or coat or reshape the raw product, Amos said.

"There's no question we're thankful for what's happened and we're not afraid to say that the president and Congressman Bost did something we're thankful for," he said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)