Trump loves farmers but keeps them guessing on NAFTA strategy

Source: By HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH and MEGAN CASSELLA, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

Farm leaders have lobbied the Trump administration and pleaded with the president to tread carefully in the ongoing renegotiation of the free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

 President Donald Trump on Monday delivered a campaign-style speech to thousands of farmers that largely dodged one of the most pressing concerns in agriculture — whether Trump intends to blow up the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Farm leaders have lobbied the administration and pleaded with the president to tread carefully in the ongoing renegotiation of the free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico because the agricultural sector has arguably more to lose than any other segment of the economy if trade relations sour in North America.

Trump, in a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Nashville, Tenn., stopped short of making his oft-repeated threat to pull out of NAFTA if he does not get a reworked deal that is to his liking. But otherwise he offered little assurance to farmers and ranchers who fear the potential loss of important export markets.

“On NAFTA, I’m working very hard to get a better deal for our country and for our farmers and for our manufacturers,” Trump told the audience at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. “It’s not the easiest negotiation, but we’re going to make it fair for you people again. We want to see even more victories for the American farmer and the American rancher.”

It was a brief, muted statement that stood in stark contrast to past threats Trump has made. He didn’t issue demands or ultimatums, as he has in the past when discussing NAFTA, nor did he float the prospect of walking away from the negotiating table — but he also didn’t forcefully defend the pact or commit to remaining a part of it.

Trump’s typical rhetoric about driving toward a “better deal” for American workers did little to assuage the deep anxiety in the farm sector that the president’s anti-free-trade stances could end up having a catastrophic effect on a farm economy that has been struggling with low prices for the last few years.

“The president needs to communicate to the farmers today that he’s all for a fair, free trade deal with NAFTA,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had said earlier in the day, in an interview on Fox Business Network. “He’s a tough negotiator and he wants a good deal for American farmers and the American people.”

Trump’s less-than-enthusiastic show of support for NAFTA came at the tail end of a convention hosted by the Farm Bureau, which generally leans to the right politically, during which pro-trade interest groups sought to spotlight the free-trade deal and the benefits it has brought to the rural community.

“Today could have been a chance to take withdrawal off the table once and for all,” former Sen. Max Baucus, who co-chairs the advocacy group Farmers for Free Trade, said in a statement to POLITICO. “The continuing specter of withdrawal is not an effective negotiating technique, particularly because right now it’s harming American farmers whose livelihoods depend on certainty.”

In an uncharacteristically scripted speech, Trump, the first sitting president to speak at the Farm Bureau’s annual convention since George H.W. Bush, instead focused on the Republican tax law and his administration’s deregulatory push, arguing that the changes will help family farmers.

The president paid particular attention to the fact that the tax plan raised the threshold of the estate tax — often called the “death tax” by opponents — a levy that affects only a small percentage of the wealthiest farmers. Getting relief from the tax has long been a priority of the ag lobby.

“From now on, most family farms and most business owners will be spared … the punishment of the deeply unfair estate tax, known as the death tax, so you can keep your farms in the family,” Trump said to a standing ovation.

“Obviously, you love your families or you wouldn’t be standing for that one,” he joked. “Not going to help you much. Going to help them a lot.”

The president’s speech only made passing references to agricultural policy. He said he intends to work with Congress to secure timely passage of the farm bill — sprawling legislation that governs most facets of farm and food policy, covers a five-year period and expires at the end of September.

He also gave a strong endorsement of the crop insurance program, a major component of the farm bill that has become more controversial as farmers increasingly rely on it to shore up their incomes. Conservative groups have criticized the program, in part because taxpayers subsidize farmers’ premiums.

“I think it’s going to go well,” Trump said of the farm bill process, getting another standing ovation.

After his remarks, Trump signed a pair of presidential actions aimed at boosting development of broadband, a serious challenge in large swaths of rural America. One of the actions, a presidential memorandum, will direct the Interior Department to make infrastructure available for broadband deployment, a senior administration official told reporters today, according to a transcript of the call.