Facing criticism from allies and Republican worries about upcoming congressional elections, President Donald Trump traveled to two farm states Thursday and urged backers to stick with him on trade, despite tariff battles with Europe and China that are undercutting crop prices.
"We just opened up Europe for you farmers," Trump told backers in Iowa before traveling to a reopened steel plant in Illinois to say that tariffs on steel and aluminum are leading to revivals of those industries.
"We've got aluminum coming out good, we've got steel coming out beyond good," Trump said during a trade speech in Granite City, Ill.
Farmers, however, have criticized Trump tariffs affecting their products, and Republicans are concerned that a depression of agriculture votes could cost the GOP control of Congress in November. They say that Chinese retaliatory tariffs in particular are hurting prices for soybeans, pork and other agricultural products.
Seeking to quell unrest, the White House this week announced a package of $12 billion in aid to farmers being hurt by the trade wars. Republican lawmakers, however, denounced that plan as welfare, and said the best solution to farmers' troubles is to simply eliminate the tariffs.
While discussing trade during a workforce development conference at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Trump said, "The farmers love me; they voted for me."
At one point brandishing a campaign-style red hat that said "Make Our Farmers Great Again," Trump touted new trade talks with Europe and said his tariffs are designed to force countries like China to change what he called unfair trade practices.
China and European countries have retaliated with their own tariffs on U.S. products, Trump acknowledged, and farmers in particular are saying that the penalties are hurting sales.
Republicans and others have told Trump that the tariff wars are starting to hurt business people, including farmers and other key sources of votes in the November congressional elections.
"People are making their voices heard with this White House about the negative impact of tariffs, and the potential for greater negative impact," said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who has worked with private companies to promote free trade.
A coalition of conservative groups, including the National Taxpayers Union and Club for Growth, are urging Trump to pull back.
Tariffs "act as a tax on American consumers, raise costs for our manufacturers and drive our jobs to other countries," these groups wrote in an op-ed for USA TODAY.
They could also hurt Republicans at the ballot box, no small thing as the GOP faces the possible loss of House and Senate majorities in the November elections.
Trump said the trade rivals are directing their tariffs toward certain products in pivotal political states, seeking to hurt him with voters.
"It's not nice what they're doing," Trump said.
Trump visited Iowa and Illinois a day after proclaiming new talks with European Union officials about eliminating all trade barriers between the U.S. and Europe.
Making the announcement following a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Trump suggested he would hold off on auto and other new tariffs against Europe as the talks took place. He also said officials would try to "resolve" existing steel and aluminum tariffs, as well as "retaliatory tariffs" in general.
In Iowa, Trump told supporters that Europe has also agreed to but more U.S. soybeans, and, "you're not going to be too angry with Trump, I can tell you."
Warning that "tariffs and bailouts" will lead to an economic meltdown, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said "America's farmers don’t want to be paid to lose – they want to win by feeding the world."
During his daylong tour of farm country, Trump said that the economy overall is flourishing. Noting the new economic growth numbers are due out Friday, Trump said, "I don't what they are, but there are predictions from 3.8 to 5.3 (percent)."
Farm states feature a number of close House and Senate races, and could be decisive as to whether Republicans or Democrats wind up with control of Congress.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with The Cook Political Report, said the question is whether Republican farmers feel relief by the fall, right ahead of elections.
"If this farm aid is real and gets delivered, there may not be an issue at all," she said. "If not, and farmers don't feel President Trump is being straight with them, there could be a real problem."
Trump and advisers said he and the farmers want the same thing: A fair trading system.
"He's been pushing to get better deals, and he feels like he's getting them," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
The critics, she said, "want to see some results – but so does the president."