President Donald Trump touted a recent trade deal with European Union leaders at a stop in Iowa Thursday. He visited Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta with an official mission to hold a discussion on workforce development. But the status of the president’s international trade disputes and political flashpoints from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prescription drug prices steered much of the conversation away from economic development policy.
The stage was set for a discussion about recruiting and retaining skilled workers. Around two hundred attendees crowded into a room on the NICC campus, just outside of Dubuque. Besides Trump, 13 panelists were there, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Republican Congressman Rod Blum of Dubuque, Labor Secretary Anthony Acosta, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and students and administrators from NICC.
But the conversation quickly moved from negotiations for the year-round sale of E-15 fuel, to the Republican tax cut law, the cost of the Affordable Care Act and the price of prescription drugs.
Eventually, the president did turn to workforce development, recognizing the NICC's efforts to match apprentices with job training and instruction by working professionals.
"What we need is talented people, people that have knowledge and people that know how to use those incredible machines that you don't learn overnight, right?" Trump said. "What you're doing here is a great example."
But soon the talk turned again, this time to the president's trade policies. After taking to Twitter earlier this week to admonish detractors and "weak politicians" calling for an end to the president's tariffs, Trump directed a message straight to farmers.
He brandished a green and yellow baseball hat emblazoned with "Make Our Farmers Great Again," in the style of his red campaign hats.
"It's the John Deere colors actually. 'Make Our Farmers Great Again.' Isn't that great?" Trump said.
Trump heralded the deal with European Commission representative Jean-Claude Juncker to send more U.S. soybeans to the E.U. as though it were a big development, saying previous "restrictions" had made exporting ag products to Europe "impossible."
"We just opened up Europe for you farmers. You're not going to be too angry with Trump, I can tell you," Trump said. "They were restricted from dealing in Europe. You had barriers that really made it impossible for farm products to go in."
At times, Trump turned to Gov. Reynolds for support and confirmation.
"I mean basically we opened up Europe. And that's going to be a great thing for Europe. And it's really going to be a great thing for us. And it's going to be a really great thing for our farmers," Trump said. "Because you have just gotten yourself one big market that really essentially...wouldn't you say, Kim?...never existed.”
In fact there is a long history of the U.S. exporting agricultural products to Europe, including soybeans. Compared to political leaders in the state, some of Iowa's ag industry groups have been slower and more measured in their reactions to the EU trade plan. In an email, ISA spokeswomen Katie Johnson said the soybean market with Europe has always been open.
"There is an open market for soy in the E.U. so there's never been anything to stop increased imports from the U.S.," Johnson wrote in an email Thursday. "And with the China tariffs, European soy imports were expected to rise by a couple million tons."
Meanwhile, Reynolds and Iowas's U.S. senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, have applauded the plan, which came a day after the Trump administration announced a $12 billion emergency aid package for farmers impacted by the president's trade policies. The prospect of a so-called farmer bailout has spurred mixed reviews from farm state lawmakers and ag advocates.
Dennis Lindsay, who farms about 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Delaware and Buchanan counties said government assistance is not the solution to the low commodity prices and high expenses he's facing.
"It looks like our government's kind of going down the same road as what we don't want the other governments doing," Lindsay said. "This looks like a little bit of protectionism and I thought that's what we're against."
After Thursday's event in Peosta, Reynolds said she "appreciates the $12 billion" and said farmers are on board with the Trump administration's tactics.
"Our farmers understand that China is a bad actor," Reynolds said.
But Lindsay said he's having a hard time connecting those dots.
"Is it that bad that they have to hit farmers so bad? I know that other countries don't play fair, but is there some other way of dealing with this?" Lindsay said. "I don’t know."
Farmers hoping for more concrete details on either the $12 billion aid package or the trade deal with the E.U. wouldn't find much in Trump's comments in Peosta Thursday, although he did make reassurances to the ag industry.
The president also lent some support to the Republicans in the room facing elections this November, namely Reynolds and Blum, though both endorsements were somewhat tepid.
While Trump recognized Blum as “one of the most effective people in Congress,” he at one point called the Republican lawmaker “Matt,” instead of his actual name, “Rod.” Blum is thought to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the House this election cycle.
And though Trump heralded Reynolds as “better than a great governor,” pointing out she can use the state's top rating by US News & World Report against her competitor, he said he doesn't know who that is.
"Those are very bad sound bites for whoever you're running against. I don't know who you're running against," Trump said.
Reynolds, who was appointed to the position after Governor Terry Branstad became ambassador to China, is facing Democratic Fred Hubbell in what’s been called a toss-up race.