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U.S. Farmers Feel The Hurt From Trump's Tariff Fight

NOEL KING, HOST:

U.S. farmers are feeling the hurt from the president's tariff fight. Their crops are getting harder to sell. They are losing money. So yesterday, the Trump administration said it is preparing an aid package worth about $12 billion to help farmers directly. The president says all of this is paying off. Yesterday, while he was talking to the VFW National Convention, he said foreign countries are rushing to negotiate new trade deals with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They don't want to have those tariffs put on them. They're all coming to see us. And the farmers will be the biggest beneficiary.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Watch. We're opening up markets. You watch what's going to happen. Just be a little patient.

KING: Now, many farm associations have dismissed this aid package. They say they would rather have long-term stability over one-time payments. Our next guest has called the president's plan $12 billion gold crutches. He is Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska. He joins us from his office on Capitol Hill. Good morning, Senator.

BEN SASSE: Good morning. Thank you for the invite.

KING: Oh, we're glad to have you. So you heard the president say it, be patient, it'll work out in the end. Do you think there's an argument that, in the long term, these tariffs will be worth the short-term pain?

SASSE: Well, it'd be basically a first because tariffs never works. Trade wars never work. They're always lost by both sides. You don't win a trade war. So tariffs are a really blunt instrument. But the bigger problem here is the background context, that somehow the U.S. is being taken advantage of at a grand level in an international trading regime that we built and that benefits us as both consumers and producers.

KING: OK. So you are not buying it across the board. Let me ask you about the retaliatory taxes that have been imposed on U.S. exports. They were designed to hurt farmers, to hurt the rural voters who have largely supported President Trump. Can I ask you - what have you been hearing from your constituents in Nebraska about what effect these tariffs are having and whether they're changing people's minds about the president?

SASSE: Well, I don't know how to speculate about where people are on sort of grand bundles about who you support. Once you've made an election decision, people tend to have a lot of stickiness there. But I think big picture about these policies - I don't find any farmers or ranchers in Nebraska who say what we want is more bailouts, what we want is more welfare. What they want is more markets. I mean, at the risk of hyperbole, I literally live on the most productive land in the history of the world. And Nebraska grows far more food than we could ever conceivably consume. So we need export markets, and these people, they don't want welfare. They want to work. And they win when there's more trade. And right now, we're headed toward less trade.

KING: Well, President Trump is meeting with farm state lawmakers today. Do you think they're going to make that point to him as directly as you've just put it?

SASSE: I tend to be a little bit blunt. I'm one of a handful of people around here who's never been a politician before, so when I believe something, I just say it. I don't really calculate the politics. So I don't know what other people will say in terms of bluntness or directness. But I think ag state senators are very, very united in the view that this is a bad idea. When you look at soybeans - I've had bean farmers in my office three consecutive weeks. I saw them, you know, at the grocery store and headed to little league at home this weekend in Nebraska. And they're scared. I mean, you got guys in my office last week on the verge of tears because they've got debt payments due in October and November. And right now, the bean spot market price is less than the cost of production of what they've already invested in their beans. So just to look at one commodity group, this $12 billion number is basically the same number as how much bean farmers have already lost just this year. So it's not enough. But more fundamentally, they don't want bailouts. They want markets.

KING: But that makes you wonder if this aid package, this $12 billion, is then part of some political strategy, right? Because it will protect farmers from short-term pain. At the same time, it will give Republicans a chance to protest and say we've got to get back to free market principles. Do you think this is a strategy to protect Republican incumbents whose constituents are losing money and who might take it out on Republicans at the voting booth this fall?

SASSE: You know, again, I'm a rookie on politics, so I don't know how to calculate who's deciding what about, you know, what matters from now to November. What I care about is the U.S. not losing the supply chain markets and the sort of export markets that we've owned in the past. This stuff doesn't come back easily. If you start to alternately - alternatively supply from Brazil or Argentina some of the crops that are now mostly sold and exported by Iowans and Nebraskans and other farmers in the U.S., what we know historically is when your markets return - if they return - 80 percent is usually the high water market of - mark of what you used to have. So I'm reminded of "The Simpsons" episode where Homer says to Marge sorry doesn't put the thumb back on your hand. So you can give people short-term money, but it doesn't mean that they again have the long-term economic trading relationships they had, want and need.

KING: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called this aid package a one-time program. Do you think he's right, or do you think we'll see more of these?

SASSE: You know, it's telling that the administration is looking to use authorities from the early 1930s. This stuff isn't accidental. In the past, when we've...

KING: This is a Depression-era - this aid package comes from a Depression-era policy, right?

SASSE: Yeah. I mean, this is not making America great again. This is making America 1929 again. And 1929 led to 1930, 1931 and beyond. So protectionism doesn't work. Tariffs don't work. Tariffs lead to more retaliatory tariffs. When there's more trade in the world, American consumers win and American producers win. And, oh, by the way, our trading partners win too, and that's what this administration fundamentally doesn't get. A lot of good, strong, wise, thoughtful people around the president clearly do get. But on net, he's listening to his advisers who think of trade as a zero-sum game. Trade is not a zero-sum game. It's a win-win. And we need more of that. And that requires, frankly, leading allies and leading a long-term vision for the U.S.' role in the world, not retreating.

KING: Just briefly, you say you've had people come to you in tears worried about money. The $12 billion will at the very least ease some immediate concerns, right?

SASSE: Sure, but that doesn't have anything to do with having a long-term strategy or whether or not this is enough money or whether or not Washington bureaucrats should be picking winners and losers. And that's the path the administration has us on right now.

KING: Senator Ben Sasse is a Republican from Nebraska. Thank you, Senator, for your time.

SASSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.