President Trump makes surprise phone call during Decatur Farm Progress Show

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Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org

United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue took the stage at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, Wednesday to discuss the U.S.-China trade war, trade agreements and other problems facing farmers. He was interviewed by long-time agriculture journalists Max Armstrong and Orion Samuelson. 

The Farm Progress Show is one of the largest farm trade shows in the U.S. , alternating each year between Illinois and Iowa. The show draws thousands of visitors and hundreds of exhibitors each year. 

During his public interview, Perdue also took a call from President Donald J. Trump. The President then spoke to the audience for more than six minutes about the trade war and his respect for farmers. 

“China targeted our farmers thinking they can get to me because they knew I loved the farmers,” Trump said. 

“I could make a quick deal with China, and I could turn that into a tremendous amount of agriculture product. I could do it easily and I’d be a hero and I could easily win the election and that would be that,” Trump said. “But it would be the wrong deal.” 

The U.S. trade war with China has escalated since July 2018 when the U.S. imposed a 25 percent import tax on more than 800 Chinese products worth about $34 billion. The move was over allegations that China stole intellectual property. 

Since then, the U.S. imposed two more rounds of import taxes on nearly 6,000 Chinese products worth $216 billion. 

And on Sunday, the U.S. is expected to impose another 10 percent import tax on nearly 3,800 Chinese goods worth about $300 billion. 

U.S. farmers have felt the brunt of the trade war as China imposed retaliatory import taxes on U.S. farm products such as soybeans.

During Wednesday’s call, the President also shared his opinions on how farmers are reacting to the ongoing trade war. 

“These horrible dishonest reporters will say ‘oh gee the farmers are upset,’ but they can’t be too upset because I gave them $12 billion and $16 billion (in aid),” he said. 

The phone call with President Trump ended due to connection problems. The President was cutting in and out and Perdue said “I think China must be cutting out our communication here Mr. President.”

He also said, “That’s why we need broadband across the country Mr. President, we don’t have a good signal here,” which received a round of applause from the audience. 

Perdue said he is ready for the trade war to be over so farmers can resume business as usual. 

He said the United States and China had a trade deal 90% accomplished in April, but then Chinese President Xi Jinping faced political pressure from other Chinese officials. 

“I’m tired of it,” Perdue said. But “the ball is in (China’s) court.” 

Perdue said the Trump Administration is looking to other outlets for trade as well. 

He said they are focusing on the United States Mexico Canada Trade Agreement. The world is watching the United States trying to make this deal, he said. 

“The President is a dynamic leader, and he knows where he wants to go,” Perdue said. 

Perdue said they are also looking to make an agreement with the United Kingdom if it leaves the European Union. He said overall they are looking for new markets where people need food.

“(We are) looking for hungry mouths that U.S. farmers can feed,” he said. 

Perdue said in his travels around the country he has not seen farmers complaining about the trade war, though he does see them suffering under economic and emotional stress. 

“The American farmer and rancher is patriotic,” Perdue said. “They are long term players and they don’t like cheaters. Are they anxious? Absolutely. It isn’t fun to be under economic stress.”

But when asked if farmer’s patience is waning Perdue said he hasn’t noticed that in his travels. He said he’s only seen reports of that from news outlets. 

“The media are making it a problem,” he said. 

But for Robert Lee who farms corn, soybeans and hay near Lodi, WI, the trade war is a problem. 

“I am getting $1 less on beans than I should be,” he said. “Because I’m an older farmer, I’m OK. I can take a dollar lower and still make ends meet.”

It’s the young farmers he’s worried about who don’t have savings built up over better years. 

“I know a young farmer who had to sell off land to buy seed this year,” he said. 

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org