Agriculture Secretary: Trump tariffs not as bad as feared

Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday that while he's as anxious as farmers are about President Donald Trump's new tariffs, the move doesn't look as bad as he originally thought.

Perdue said during a trip to meet with representatives of North Dakota's agricultural sector that Trump's decision to enact a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent levy on aluminum looks better in the final version than it did when first announced. He joked with farmers in Iowa earlier this week that one option for farmers who fear a trade war may be to pray.

"I was very concerned last week with the surprise announcement on the steel and aluminum tariffs, as most people in the White House were," Perdue said during a press conference at North Dakota State University. "But we hope to turn it into a positive. This president has the unique ability to turn some things that we think are initially negative into positives."

Perdue says the final version looked much better because Canada and Mexico were excluded, which he believes could spark discussions on improving the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he will be on edge until NAFTA is recertified and reauthorized and the U.S. addresses trade issues with its key importers.

Agriculture producers receive 20 cents out of every dollar from exports. Perdue heard from about 20 farm representatives Friday, most of whom didn't pass the microphone until saying something about trade. Mark Martinson, a durum wheat farmer in northeastern North Dakota, said the U.S cannot risk losing "China, Indonesia, all those markets."

In addition to Trump backing off on Canada and Mexico, Perdue was relieved the president indicated he was willing to work with Europe and other U.S. allies on improving trade. Canada and Mexico are two of the largest suppliers of agricultural products to the United States, according to Commerce Department figures. In 2016, the U.S. imported $22 billion in ag products from Canada and exported $23 billion; the U.S imported $23 billion from Mexico and exported $18 billion.

The European Union, meanwhile, said it is putting together a list of agricultural products it plans to target for tariffs as retaliation to the U.S.

"This is a president who is willing to change his mind over issues," Perdue said. "He came out of the campaign literally believing that everybody in the United States hated NAFTA. And we had to walk in and show him that many of his supporters and voters benefited from NAFTA."

North Dakota U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp said Perdue has been willing to stand up to the president on the importance of trade to agriculture.

"Secretary Perdue has been a very strong advocate for the farmer on trade," Hoeven said. "No question about it. Right from the start with NAFTA, now with the tariffs, he's been very vocal with the administration on the importance of trade to agriculture."

Heitkamp said the first thing Perdue said to her in their first face-to-face meeting was "trade, trade, trade" and is happy he is pushing back against trade policies that will hurt farmers.