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Lawmakers to Trump: Farmers and ranchers want trade, not aid

President Trump made another surprising policy reversal when he told a group of mostly Midwestern lawmakers on Thursday that he is open to rejoining a sweeping trade deal with Asian nations. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas joins Judy Woodruff to explain what he and others discussed with the president about the effect of Chinese tariffs on American agriculture producers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the White House today, another surprising reversal on policy straight from the president's mouth.

    This time, Mr. Trump told a group of mostly Midwest lawmakers that he is now open to rejoining a sweeping trade deal with Asian nations, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Mr. Trump had called the pact ridiculous and withdrew the U.S. from it in one of his first acts after taking office.

    Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas was at the White House today. He's the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and he joins me now.

    Senator Roberts, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how surprised were you by — how surprised were you by what the president had to say about the Trans-Pacific agreement?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Well, we started off with a very strong message, those of us who are privileged to represent our rural areas and our farmers and ranchers and growers.

    And we have been going through a really rough patch with the loss of farm income and our prices plunging. Mother nature hasn't been very good to us either.

    But the subject was trade. And there was a proposal that was at least floated out, billions of dollars in aid to offset any tariff retaliation. Everybody there insisted and really made their point to the president that we wanted trade, not aid.

    And I think that message was well-delivered. Then there was a considerable effort made to talk about the possibility of TPP, either bilateral, one by one, or multilateral. And I think the president truly listened from the standpoint that if you want to get tough with China, and you really want all of these folks do not want to really do business with China, and we also tell all these people we have their back.

    And so from a national security standpoint and an economic opportunity, I think the president listened. He deputized Robert Lighthizer and Larry Kudlow, our new economic adviser, to say, OK, boys, you work on that. So that was very welcome news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and I want to ask you about your own — and the reason you went to the White House in the first place, as you say, was to talk about Chinese tariffs, the effects they're having on American farmers.

    But before we get to that, I just want to quickly ask you about the TPP, the Trans-Pacific agreement, because in the more than a year since the president announced the U.S. was pulling out of that, the other, what, 11 nations have gone on to create another trade deal.

    So I guess I'm curious, as are many others, about what exactly is the president talking about. Completely reversing his approach?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    He said he's going to take a hard look at it. And he wanted Bob and he wanted Larry — pardon me for calling them Bob and Larry — but to take a look at it as well.

    I think the way it was presented, it made more sense right now, since we're trying to offset the — all of the tariff problems with regards to farmers are paying for, almost being pawns in this kind of a situation.

    So given in that light, and the fact he's willing to take a new look, I think that's — I think that's logical.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how concerned are you about the — I guess the inconsistent signal that this sends about American policy, about the president's thinking here?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Well, I think the president still will continue to try to get single trade deals to the best of his ability.

    But, again, it was an opportunity that we raised, several of us. And for him to say to Bob Lighthizer, our trade ambassador and Larry Kudlow, our new economic adviser, take a look it.

    And that really was the extent of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will certainly be watching that.

    But in the meantime, Senator Roberts, as we said, the reason you went to the White House with others was to talk to the president about the effect that these Chinese tariffs, the proposed tariffs on China, the retaliation that is expected from China, what that could mean for American farmers.

    The administration is saying, we can handle this. We can come up with other ways to recompense these farmers.

    But you were concerned. You are concerned, aren't you?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Yes, I was concerned. I don't think that that's the best approach.

    Everybody in that room said they prefer trade over aid. And we have a lot of subsidy programs. We have a revenue program. We have a price-loss coverage program. We obviously have crop insurance. We need to pile another — somebody was talking about $15 billion, for goodness' sakes.

    I don't know how you do that. I don't know how you separate that out with everybody that's been involved in this trade business with China. And it is very widespread. Almost everybody that either farms or is a rancher or grows anything has been affected.

    The classic was the sorghum producer from Texas all the way up to North Dakota, when they all of a sudden saw 80 percent of their dollar go out of their price in one day because of washing machines and solar panels.

    Now, the Chinese are doing an investigation on that, but just the news on that really hit the sorghum producers very hard. Now, just add in wheat, add in corn, add in soybeans, add in cattle, add in whiskey, for goodness' sakes. How are you going to make a whiskey payment, by the way?

    So, this whole idea, I thought — I think it was resisted by the USDA, and I'm not sure who really came up with it, but I think it was basically the idea by the president, who really knows that he has a lot of support in rural and small-town areas, and we're hurting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. And as it was reported, it was the president and others around him suggesting that these payments come from the Department of Agriculture.

    But without getting too much into the details of that, why do you think the president — do you think the president completely thought through the impact of what these tariffs against China would mean for the American agriculture community?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Well, I can't answer that.

    I think he is responding. You know, this has been a long, long-sought situation here, where we're trying to address so many different things, where we're very unhappy with China. They had never adhered to their WTO obligations. We have intellectual property. We have copyright laws.

    And, quite frankly, when you build a manufacturing plant over there, you better be realizing that they are going to — they will have access to everything that you're doing.

    So there are a lot of things where we're upset about. But the problem is that when you say that we're going to put a tariff on X, Y, or Z with China on intellectual property, back they come. And the first — the first folks in our economy that get hit is agriculture.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. Do you think you made an impression on the president today?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    I don't think there's any question about it. I think, to be quite frank, he understands that we're coming up on 2018. He understands that it's an even-numbered year. There's a little bit of politics in this, to say the least.

    And what you don't want to do is really hurt the very folks who brought you to the dance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just finally, Senator, what is the thrust of what you're hearing from the farmers who you talk to?

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Well, the sorghum producers were in my office when I was meeting with the president with the Finance Committee again on trade policy.

    And they could not understand when, boom, they were hit with a market price drop. It is true that the Chinese are studying this, that they're inspecting it, or they're at least, you know, taking a look at it. And when you do that, immediately, the markets, you know, they respond.

    And so you can have a market drop. Soybeans went down 17 percent. You know, they have recovered some. But if a farmer wants to sell his product on that particular time, he's really hurt. And this applies to all of our livestock, pork, cattle.

    In California, it's nuts, almonds, raisins, wine. So all — a lot — all China has to do is say, well, we're going to take a look at you in terms of retribution, and the farmer pays the price. That's not fair. We're not pawns in this business of trade.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.:

    Yes, ma'am.

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