The Slatest

Trump Will Try to Sell His Trade War to the Farm States Hit Hardest by It

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on June 21, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on June 21, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the White House dispatched Mike Pence to the Midwest to calm the nerves of Republican donors worried that Donald Trump’s trade war will decimate their local economies. This week, the president will make his case personally to the region’s voters—a sales pitch made more difficult by the mounting evidence that farm states are bearing the brunt of his “America First” trade agenda.

Trump will kick it off with a Tuesday speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars event in Kansas City, Missouri, followed by an afternoon fundraiser for state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is hoping to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill this November. Democrats have hit Hawley hard for his support of Trump’s trade agenda, and a leading outside group launched a splashy initiative last week highlighting the price Missouri dairy farmers and manufacturers are paying as a result of the measures taken by China and other trading partners in response to Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The president’s itinerary will also take him to Dubuque, Iowa, where he’ll hold a roundtable event with Rep. Rod Blum, who along with other Iowa Republicans has gone public with his trade concerns without criticizing Trump directly. And in Granite City, Illinois, Trump will tout a recently reopened steel plant in Rep. Mike Bost’s district. Democrats have made Blum and Bost top targets in their quest to pick up the two dozen seats they need to retake the House.

Trump being Trump, it’s impossible to know exactly what he will say until he says it, but it’s a safe bet that trade and tariffs will come up early and often on the trip. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump is hell-bent on making trade a central theme of the midterms, despite a bunch of Republican candidates warning the White House that the issue will not go over well in farm states like the ones he’s set to visit this week. “It’s not like you are going to change his mind,” one unnamed White House official said of Trump. “So we just have to message it the right way.”

It sure will be interesting, and perhaps amusing, to see how Trump tries to spin this one as a winner. So far, the administration has relied on an intentionally vague promise to eventually help farmers and other producers become whole. But Trump has undercut that pledge by claiming that those Americans hurt most by the tariffs haven’t been hurt by them nearly as much as they think. Republican voters have proved they’re willing to take Trump’s word over almost everyone else’s, but they’ll be less likely to take it over their own bank accounts.

The president’s pitch in Granite City should, theoretically, be a little more focused. The United States Steel Corp. announced earlier this year it would reopen a previously idled plant there, and Trump has touted that as proof his tariffs are bringing jobs back to the United States. But the announcement loses some luster if you pull back. Tariffs on imported steel can be a boon to the bottom lines of domestic steel companies since they drive up the price of their foreign competitors. But higher steel prices tend to be a blow to U.S. manufacturers that use steel in their products and to the farmers who need those products to bring in their harvest.

The price of U.S. soybeans, meanwhile, has dropped roughly 20 percent since Trump announced his first round of tariffs in March, and the retaliatory actions taken by China, Mexico, and others has hit the meat industry so hard that specialized warehouses built to store exports are reportedly running out of room in their freezers.

Blum and other Iowa Republicans are so worried about the long-term impact of the tariffs on their state’s soybean and pork production that they went public with those concerns late last month, a rare break with a president who is immensely popular with the party’s base. In a joint letter to Trump, Blum and the rest of the state’s predominantly Republican delegation declared that the tariffs will be “catastrophic” to the Iowa economy and urged the president to “act expeditiously to save our rural economies.” Despite that warning, Trump has pushed ahead with his trade agenda. Now that the president is coming to Iowa, though, Blum is welcoming him with open arms.

Trump narrowly won Blum’s district in 2016, but the GOP incumbent is facing a strong challenge from state Democratic lawmaker Abby Finkenauer this year. More alarming for Blum and farm-state Republicans like him is that industry experts and economists say that the real-world impact of Trump’s trade policy is likely to get worse between now and November.