DeWITT — President Donald Trump’s go-it-alone approach on trade with China put a bull’s-eye on American farmers, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.
Had the White House enlisted allies like Europe and Japan, then China would not have been able to retaliate the way it has, he said.
“When was the last time the United States of America went to war without an ally,” Vilsack asked. “It’s not that he went to war, it’s that he went to war alone that put a big bull’s-eye on agriculture.”
Vilsack was campaigning for Patti Robinson, a Democrat running for the state Senate in District 49 in Eastern Iowa. She is hoping to replace Sen. Rita Hart, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell.
Republican Chris Cournoyer, president of the Pleasant Valley School Board, is running against Robinson.
About two dozen people met with Robinson and Vilsack at a farm north of DeWitt in rural Clinton County for a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday that included agriculture issues, education, the political climate and rural development.
Vilsack, who was agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, has been active lately helping Iowa Democrats running for office.
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The Trump administration imposed tariffs on China in July, leading to retaliatory duties on a range of U.S. agricultural products, including soybeans.
The trade war has rattled farmers and Midwest economies that are tied to agriculture.
Vilsack said China has been engaged in unfair trade practices, and it’s good to take them on. He also said the North American Free Trade Agreement needed to be modernized. But enlisting allies against China would have limited that country’s response, he said.
“It would have been very difficult for them to pick on our agriculture because they would have to pick on European agriculture and Mexican agriculture. They would have had to pick on everybody,” said Vilsack, who now is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “They wouldn’t have done that.”
There has been a battle for public opinion in the Midwest over the trade issue.
A group of farmers gathered recently with Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann for a forum, with several saying it’s right to take a more aggressive tack toward China and agriculture would be better off in the long run.
The Trump administration also said last month that it would provide up to $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the trade conflict. Administration officials also have come to the state offering reassurances.
Vilsack, though, said he worried the trade war would mean a loss of markets in the long term. Chinese officials have warned other countries could amply fill the gap.
Vilsack said selling grain to Europe wouldn’t make up the difference.
He said, for the well-being of farmers, there should be a quick deal on NAFTA. After that, he said, the administration should, “better late than never,” seek allies in the dispute with China.