Despite frustration on trade and ethanol, Midlands lawmakers’ criticism of Trump is muted

Source: By Joseph Morton, Omaha World-Herald • Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2018

WASHINGTON — Midlands lawmakers were upbeat after an April 12 White House meeting where President Donald Trump indicated that he’d take a fresh look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership and year-round sales of the ethanol blend known as E15.

Since that meeting, however, Trump has reverted to sharp criticisms of the TPP and his head of the Environmental Protection Agency has been granting refiners waivers to federal ethanol mandates that the ethanol industry says are destroying demand for their product.

The sequence of events underscores a frequent criticism of Trump: he says what an audience likes to hear but doesn’t follow through. And yet even as farmers worry about the effects of his actions, Nebraska and Iowa leaders’ criticism of Trump has been muted.

The lack of harsh criticism reflects Trump’s still-solid support among many Nebraskans and Iowans, which gives lawmakers reason to be wary of overly harsh critiques, said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“He won Nebraska by a lot so they’d rather not have to take that on,” Hibbing said.

Hibbing also said the impact of administration policies such as the tariffs have not fully kicked in yet. If China goes all-out in retaliation and the price of soybeans plummets, for example, Trump’s support could erode, he said.

“It’s still a little bit abstract,” Hibbing said.

Jordan Dux, the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs, said there is frustration in farm country over the ethanol and trade issues.

But overall, he said, he’s happy with many of the administration’s positions. Positive signs, he said, include continuing talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement and discussion of bilateral agreements with individual countries, including Japan.

And Dux said he’s happy with the Nebraska delegation and other ag state lawmakers for keeping up the pressure.

“I think the administration is starting to hear very loud and clear from ag … that the trade issues the president is working on are being paid attention to very closely,” he said.

That April 12 White House meeting was intended to reassure Midwestern farm states nervous about Trump’s approach to trade and his EPA chief’s treatment of ethanol.

The threat of a trade war with China is disturbing to farm country because retaliation typically targets exports that have been key to boosting farm prosperity.

Iowa and Nebraska were heavily represented at that sit-down, which included the governors of both states, all four of their U.S. senators and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.

The Republicans emerged from the meeting saying that Trump had directed economic advisers to look again at re-entering negotiations on the TPP to give the U.S. partners in dealing with China. Trump had withdrawn the U.S. from negotiations shortly after taking office.

While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don’t like the deal for the United States. Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn’t work. Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers. Look how bad WTO is to U.S.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018

Within a week, while hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida, Trump tweeted of the TPP: “I don’t like the deal for the United States.”

Bacon said recently that lawmakers must continue to make their case on trade to top administration officials and to the president himself.

“We’ve got to keep pushing our viewpoint, and it’s not a one-time thing,” Bacon said.

Bacon said there has been improvement on trade on the South Korea front and said there are indications that a new NAFTA deal could be finished soon.

“Our takeaway is you can’t stop,” Bacon said. “We have to keep pounding on the door saying ‘hey, this is what the Midwest needs.”

But Bacon also noted that Nebraska went overwhelmingly for Trump, even though his attitude toward trade alarmed some in agriculture.

“We have to keep pushing our agenda and let him know it’s important to the Midwest,” Bacon said. “And is it frustrating? The alternative was Hillary Clinton.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said last week that she has laid out the case to Trump many times that NAFTA is important to Iowa’s farmers and ranchers and that she thinks he’s listening.

That included a recent one-on-one phone conversation with Trump in which he said they are close to completing a NAFTA deal, Ernst said.

“He said ‘Joni, it’s only because of you and a couple other senators that we did not rip up (NAFTA),’ ” Ernst said.

Ernst also stressed the many other policies on which she and the president have been on the same page, from reducing taxes to a large boost in defense spending. There’s a new justice on the Supreme Court, and many regulations are being rolled back.

“I’ll take those wins and we’ll keep working hard for the Iowa public to make sure that we see additional wins for us in the future,” Ernst said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, puts the blame not on Trump but on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, calling him a “loose cannon not carrying out the president’s wishes.”

Last week he said Pruitt has undercut the Renewable Fuel Standard with “potential illegal abuse” of so-called hardship waivers for refineries.

But still, he said Pruitt has done well on other issues and he doesn’t want to see him resign.

“A president of the United States … can’t get into every detail that every Cabinet member’s doing or every agency’s doing,” Grassley said. “So I’m going to give the president a pass on this.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., suggested that Trump’s statements at the meeting on both the TPP and ethanol might have been heard differently in different quarters.

She said it was always clear to her that while Trump raised the prospect of looking at the TPP again, he also stressed that he continued to prefer bilateral agreements with the countries involved. And the E15 language was coupled with talk about the need to give refiners relief from the Renewable Fuel Standard — a deal corn-state senators like herself have repeatedly rejected.

“I’m frustrated,” Fischer said. “Nebraska depends on agriculture, that’s our economic engine. And we need to be able to maintain those markets we have and we need to have opportunities to grow more. That’s the bottom line of the discussion.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., had praised Trump’s talk on the TPP in the White House meeting, saying it was better to work with multiple countries to confront unfair Chinese trade practices than to rely on tariffs.

In a Wednesday statement, Sasse said, “Here are two facts that haven’t changed: Nebraskans win with trade and China wins when the United States pulls back from the Pacific. Nebraska needs more trade, and more engagement in the Pacific gives us a whole bunch of power and leverage to crack down on Chinese cheating and aggression.

“We don’t have years to wait; China is filling the void now. That’s what I’ve repeatedly suggested to the President and, frankly, that’s a message all farm states should be sending the White House.”