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Fact Checker: Tom Steyer ad mostly accurate in Donald Trump takedown

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks Aug. 11 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks Aug. 11 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Introduction

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley speaking: “They screwed us.”

WOI-TV news anchor speaking: “The White House has chosen oil refiners over corn growers. That’s money that could have gone to farmers who grow corn for ethanol. This is a total reversal of what the president said during his time in Iowa.”

Words flashed on TV screen: “Mocked [farmers] as ‘whiners.’”

Source of claims

These three claims are included in a political ad airing on Iowa television stations titled “Screwed Us” from Democratic presidential candidate and billionaire Tom Steyer.

Analysis

We’ll look more in depth at each of the three claims.

Claim 1: “They screwed us.”

The ad shows a brief clip of Grassley, R-Iowa, speaking on an August episode of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.” He was responding to a question about why the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency hadn’t followed through on his promises to support the ethanol industry.

“They screwed us,” Grassley said on the show. “When they issued 31 waivers — compared to less than 10 waivers during all the Obama years, and we thought that was bad. What’s really bad isn’t a waiver, it’s that it’s being granted to people that really aren’t (in) hardship.”

The waivers from a federal requirement to blend biofuels into gasoline were given to small oil refineries and, according to reporting from Reuters, effectively exempted them from using more ethanol, which is produced from corn.

Iowa is the nation’s largest ethanol-producing state, and such waivers have been hurting Iowa’s economy for years, said Iowa Corn Growers Association President Jim Greif.

“Yes, it took a lot of corn off the market that we thought we had a market for,” Greif told the Fact Checker. “It basically took a billion bushels of corn off the market.”

A billion bushels in Iowa is worth $2 billion, he estimated.

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The waivers are “a factor, but not the factor” impacting the corn market, though, Greif said. The main issued for corn farmers is overproduction and basic supply-and-demand, he said.

“As far as corn goes, there’s just a world surplus right now,” he said. “The waivers definitely have been a factor in that because that (oil refineries) was a market we should have had by law.”

Claim 2: “This is a total reversal of what the president said during his time in Iowa.”

President Donald Trump promised to support the ethanol industry while speaking June 11 in Council Bluffs, according to video used in the ad and corroborated by news coverage from the Des Moines Register, Omaha World-Herald and others.

During that visit to tout a rule change allowing year-round sales of E15 — fuel with a higher percentage of ethanol — Trump pledged to support the biofuel industry “like no other has fought before,” and said farmers in the next year and a half “are going to be in the best position they have ever been in as farmers.”

Claim 3: The ad displays this text on-screen at this point: “mocks (farmers) as ‘whiners,’” an apparent quote from a Huffington Post article.

But the reference was made by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, not Trump — critical context that is left out of this ad.

Perdue was speaking to Minnesota farmers in August when he made a joke at farmers’ expense, according to coverage from Agri-Pulse, a farm and policy news site.

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A farmer at the Minnesota event expressed frustration about how long the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes to complete National Agricultural Statistics Service reports, Agri-Pulse reported, and joked that the TV show “American Idol” completes faster surveys.

Perdue responded, “I had a farmer tell me this in Pennsylvania. He said ‘What do you call two farmers in a basement?’ I said ‘I don’t know, what do you call them?’ He said, ‘A whine cellar.’”

Conclusion

Steyer’s ad is mostly accurate — Grassley did say the Trump administration “screwed” Iowa farmers by granting dozens of waivers to oil refiners; that action did deprive corn growers of expected money; and the waivers did cut across comments Trump made in Iowa.

The quote about mocking farmers as “whiners” is on far shakier ground. It was Trump’s ag secretary who made the reference — not Trump.

It’s also worth noting the Trump administration announced new efforts this month to support corn growers and ethanol plants by proposing to require that large oil refineries add more ethanol to their products to make up for smaller refineries’ waivers, according to POLITICO.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Greif said of the proposal. “It took three or four years for this to happen, and it will take a few years to get out of it.”

Because the faulty whiners claim is only a part of the ad, we give the overall ad a B.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Molly Duffy of The Gazette.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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