President Donald Trump on Monday defended his tough trade policies in front of thousands of farmers, a key constituency that has struggled because of his trade war with China, and promised fair trade deals that will put America's rural heartland back on its feet.
"We've taken the toughest ever actions to address China's unfair trade practices," Trump told farmers in New Orleans at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention, an event he attended for the second year in a row as a partial government shutdown in Washington dragged into its 24th day.
U.S. farmers, numbering some 3.2 million, have been reliable Trump supporters, despite struggling financially since Beijing imposed a tariff on imports of U.S. soybeans in July in retaliation for Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods.
"With China, every year for many years we're losing $375 billion. We're working on that very strong. You see what's going on. Doing very well," Trump said, without providing any specific details on the negotiations.
"We're turning all of that around with fair trade deals that put American farmers, ranchers, and in fact America, first."
China bought about $12 billion in American soy in 2017, but mostly shifted purchases to Brazil last year because of the trade dispute. The government shutdown meanwhile has delayed applications for federal farm loan applications and an aid package meant to ease the pain of the trade war.
Trump fell short of addressing the delays caused in aid payments by the shutdown but praised how farmers remained loyal to him. "No one understands more than our farmers that the tough choices we make today will reap rewards down the road."
The president authorized about $11 billion in aid payments last year, billing it as a promise kept to a key constituency.
The administration last week extended the deadline for aid applications because of the processing delays caused by the shutdown over Trump's demand that Congress fund a wall at the border with Mexico.
Earlier, the crowd was keen to hear about trade.
"I'm hoping to hear about trade. Trade, trade, trade," said Brian Duncan, an Illinois crop and livestock farmer and vice president of the Illinois Farm Bureau who was at the convention.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture would like to reopen Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, and is working with the Office of Management and Budget, Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Fox Business Network on Monday.
Steven Mayer, a Nebraska corn, soy and cattle farmer at the convention, said he was waiting for a loan from FSA to build storage bins for grain.
"I'm a Trump supporter and I am trying to keep my hopes up," he said. "These have been tough times for farmers."
Trump canceled a planned visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week, because of the shutdown.
"With everything going on, he's coming here to talk to us – to farmers," said Francine Davies, who was at the convention and said most of her family grows crops and works in Wisconsin's dairy industry. "That means something to us."
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