President Donald Trump appealed to Congress and the nation for unity and bipartisanship, citing the 2018 farm bill as an example of what can be achieved, while pressing his case for new trade agreements and better border security.
“There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage to seize it,” Trump said in his second State of the Union message.
Trump linked his appeals for better border security and improved trade deals to the needs of working-class Americans, a critical part of his base in the 2020 reelection campaign.
Trump pledged not to let up pressure on China until it accepts U.S., demands to scrap policies aimed at appropriating American intellectual property.
The Trump administration slapped tariffs on $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods last year. China hit back with a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans and other commodities. Those tariffs, piled on top of others to hit back against U.S. import taxes on steel and aluminum, have impacted virtually all agricultural exports to China.
U.S. and Chinese negotiators met for the second time this year last week. Trump has previously said if a deal can be made before a March 1 deadline, he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign an agreement that ends the trade war.
“I have great respect for President Xi, and we are now working on a new trade deal with China,” Trump said Tuesday night. “But it must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs.”
Trump also called on Congress to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the renegotiated trade pact that ties the three countries together with virtually no tariffs on agricultural commodities. The North American leaders all signed off on the new pact last year, but now all three legislatures must approve it.
He devoted a much larger portion of his speech to his appeal for border wall funding and other measure to stop illegal immigration, drawing groans from many Democrats but cheers from Republicans.
To make his point, he highlighted the stories of two guests in attendance: an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who investigates sex trafficking and the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of an elderly Reno, Nev. couple he said were murdered by an illegal immigrant.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America's working class and America's political class than illegal immigration,’ he said.
Working-class Americans “pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net,” he said.
He offered no proposals for addressing farmers’ demands for foreign workers to address labor shortages.
He briefly called on Congress to pass infrastructure legislation but provided no specifics of what he wanted included.
“I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill," he said, "and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.”
Democrats sought to highlight farmers’ concerns about the president’s trade policy. Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in November, referred to farmers’ trade worries in the official Democratic response to Trump, as well as to farmers’ need for immigrant workers. “America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls,” she said.
The guests of House Democrats during Trump's speech included Tom Mueller, a farmer from Edgington, Ill., concerned about Trump’s trade policy, and Jesse Wegner, president of the Iowa Association of Farm Service Agency County Office Employees, workers who were furloughed during most of the 35-day partial government shutdown.
“Times are tough for farmers right now — it’s more important than ever that our leadership in Washington walks in our shoes and understands the challenges ag producers face,” Mueller said in a statement before the speech.
Mueller was invited by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Wegner was a guest of first-term Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, praised Trump for his “message of optimism and unity” as well as his call for congressional approval of USMCA and an infrastructure bill. “The bipartisan passage of the farm bill last year shows that our elected leaders can come together and achieve great things for our country,” Duvall said.
The president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Jennifer Houston, praised Trump’s call for Congress to approve the USMCA.
“The sooner we can secure our access to Mexico and Canada, the sooner we can focus our time, energy and resources on improving our access to lucrative markets in Asia and Europe,” she said.
But Jim Bair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, said it’s also critical for the administration to lift the tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum that have resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. farm exports.
“Because of current trade disputes regarding U.S.-imposed section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, and resulting retaliatory tariffs by our major trading partners, apple exports are down 30 percent, or about $300 million," he said. "Exports to our number one market Mexico are down 23 percent, and down 70 percent and 40 percent respectively to growth markets India and China.”
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, welcomed the president’s appeal to Congress to pass legislation “for a great rebuilding of America's crumbling infrastructure.” Matheson pressed the need for funding rural broadband expansion.
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