President Donald Trump directed the Agriculture secretary to offset damages that farmers, a part of his rural political base, are likely to face as he appeared to double down Thursday night on tariffs against Chinese imports.
Trump’s directive to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue comes as the House Ways and Means Committee plans an April 12 hearing to examine the effects on the U.S. economy of tariffs Trump imposed in March on steel and aluminum imports and the potential effects of $50 billion in proposed tariffs on Chinese-made goods.
Watch: Trump Signs Steel and Aluminum Tariffs
On Thursday, Trump raised the trade stakes saying he is considering expanding tariffs on China by $100 billion. In the same statement, however, he acknowledged that agriculture could face fallout from the escalating trade actions between Beijing and Washington.
Trump provided no details on how Perdue might aid farmers.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who has strongly criticized Trump’s use of tariffs, said the president’s call for more tariffs is “threatening to light American agriculture on fire. Let’s absolutely take on Chinese bad behavior, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us. This is the dumbest possible way to do this.”
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s office issued a preliminary list of 1,300 Chinese products on Tuesday that if finalized would amount to just under $50 billion in tariffs. The tariffs are designed to punish Beijing for policies such as forcing U.S. and other foreign companies to form joint ventures with Chinese partners and share their proprietary information or technology with those partners.
Beijing responded on Wednesday with a list of U.S. products that included Boeing Co. planes, American soybeans and other agricultural goods that would be subject to a 25 percent tariff if the Trump administration finalized its tariff list of Chinese goods.
The American Soybean Association urged Trump to scrap the U.S. tariffs and negotiate with Beijing to end China’s violations of trade rules. Other farm groups were equally vocal.
Trump seemed to acknowledge in his statement the farm sector’s concerns about losing a lucrative market to competitors that would be cheaper if the Chinese imposed their tariffs.
“I have also instructed the Secretary of Agriculture, with the support of other members of my Cabinet, to use his broad authority to implement a plan to protect our farmers and agricultural interests,” Trump said.
A statement from Perdue mentioned using “all of our authorities to ensure that we protect and preserve our agricultural interests” but provided no specifics.
In a statement, Lighthizer said China’s threat of retaliation was the wrong response to the United States. Instead, he said Beijing should have decided to change policies that discriminate against U.S. companies.
“Under these circumstances, the President is right to ask for additional appropriate action to obtain the elimination of the unfair acts, policies, and practices identified in USTR’s report [on China’s business policies and practices],” Lighthizer said.
He said any additional products identified for tariffs will go through the same public comment process as the initial $50 billion of proposed tariffs.