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PEOSTA - While appearing Thursday at an Iowa community college, President Donald Trump tantalized farmers with the prospect of year-round E15 ethanol sales while seeking to soothe their concerns over his trade policies.
And he made political pitches for two Republicans - U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and Gov. Kim Reynolds - who face election this November.
The meeting at Northeast Iowa Community College was billed as a discussion about workforce development, and several of the speakers talked about the difficulty of securing a well-trained workforce and how to build skills.
But for the president, the forum also provided an opportunity to tout the economy, bash the Affordable Care Act, warn that Democrats would raise taxes and try to alleviate concerns over a trade conflict that has sent soybean prices significantly lower and put some of his fellow Republicans on the spot.
Securing year-round sales for the higher blend of corn-based ethanol is something farm groups and rural-state politicians have been pushing for - and that the president has talked up in the past, but not approved.
'I'm getting very close to doing that,” he said.
The biofuel now typically is 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency bans the higher blend during summer months in much of the country over concerns it worsens smog. Ethanol advocates say that's unfounded.
The president returned to a state he won in 2016 by a wide margin, and he referred to his victory on a number of occasions, as well as reminded people he supported ethanol during the campaign while some of his rivals didn't.
Trump also said China is targeting farm commodities with retaliatory tariffs because its leader know farmers support him.
'It's not nice what they're doing,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats have complained over the years about unfair Chinese trade practices. Earlier this month, the White House slapped tariffs on $34 billion worth of China's products, which brought retaliation from the Chinese against U.S. goods including soybeans, beef and pork.
With the price of soybeans dropping sharply as a result, the Trump administration announced just days before the president's visit that the government would provide up to $12 billion, much of it in the form of direct payments, as short-term help to farmers.
Blum threw his support to Trump for his trade policies.
The congressman praised the president for having the 'political courage” to renegotiate trade deals and said the move would be beneficial to agriculture and manufacturing.
Trump returned the favor by praising Blum, whom he called 'Matt,” on the efforts to secure federal funding for flood protection in Cedar Rapids. The federal government recently approved $117 million for the project after Blum, Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, among others, repeatedly pressed for it.
The president also mused about Blum's Democratic opponent in the fall election, saying, 'I guess he's got a race against somebody they call Absent Abby.”
Abby Finkenauer, a state representative from Dubuque who is running against Blum, said on Twitter that if Trump didn't know who she is now, 'I'm sure you'll know it by Election night.”
The president also referred to a tentative deal with the European Union announced Wednesday at the White House. Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had said they agreed to hold off on proposed car tariffs while pursuing a bilateral trade deal.
Trump said Thursday that 'we just opened up Europe for you farmers,” though Europe already accounts for 11 percent of U.S. soybean and soymeal exports, according to the U.S. Soybean Export Council.
As for the prospect of year-round ethanol sales, the president earlier this spring touted the possibility as part of a deal to end a dispute over the Renewable Fuel Standard between oil interests and biofuel interests. He said Thursday he was 'very close” to giving it his approval.
Mark Recker, an Oelwein-area farmer who is president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said Thursday that a move to extend E15 sales all year-round - without any concessions to the oil industry - would be welcomed.
'The president said he's close, so we'll see what happens,” Recker said. 'It's good to hear him talk about it. Now let's see the actions behind the words. Let's get there.”
During the workforce discussion, Trump heard about initiatives to provide more job training and apprenticeships, along with the challenges that employers face in finding workers.
'Bottom line, the work's there. We just need the bodies,” said Matt Giese, project manager at Giese Manufacturing, a Dubuque-based company, who took part in the roundtable.
The president, along with daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, talked up a job-training bill that had been approved by Congress.
The Washington Post and Reuters contributed to this report.