Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer used a taxpayer-funded USDA podcast to suck up to their boss, President Donald Trump, and praise his agricultural trade policies, which have left farmers hurting.
Lighthizer joined Perdue for the latest broadcast of the USDA’s monthly podcast The Sonnyside of the Farm, which purports to cover “the issues facing America’s farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters.” The podcast has recently featured former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich.
Perdue peppered his podcast with Lighthizer, the president’s top trade policy adviser, with his signature praise of Trump. Introducing his guest, Perdue described Trump as “an unapologetic advocate for America around the globe” and said that he wanted to congratulate Lighthizer because he “can’t think of anyone who can support President Trump better than you have in these trade negotiations. You’re tough and you reinforce his ability to use leverage ... You've been quite a sidekick to the president."
Turning to the topic of farmers, Perdue said, “I don’t think people would understand how much [Trump] really cares” and later said that farmers appreciate Trump’s “toughness” and that in return, Trump sees in farmers “the values that embody the American spirit, who really built this country.” Lighthizer agreed, saying that Trump also “appreciates” that “so many farmers have basic values, the kind of values that not only made the economy, but made our communities.” Lighthizer also told an anecdote about Trump supposedly caring about farmers more than anything else and said Trump refers to them as “his farmers and ranchers.”
When Lighthizer praised Trump for being willing to “stir it up” on trade, Perdue responded by saying that was “the amazing thing about President Trump” before praising the president's “trading acumen.” Lighthizer added that working with Trump is “a hoot,” that he has “been kind of a consistent, steady leader,” and that the two have never had a disagreement.
Perdue ended the show by saying to Lighthizer, “I want to applaud you on behalf of the United States of America for supporting our president,” and added that “like the president said, I’m not tired of winning yet.”
On the issue of farmers affected by Trump’s trade war with China, Lighthizer said, “On this question of the farmers, and the farmers being being bothered by some of things we’ve done, and, as you say, it’s now been proven that we were right and the numbers are coming in.”
But that’s not the case. In 2018, Trump started a trade war with China, imposing additional tariffs on the importation of $34 billion of Chinese goods. In response, China placed tariffs on U.S. agricultural products such as soybeans and dramatically reduced importation of U.S. soybeans in favor of increased purchases from other countries, in particular Brazil. The trade war caused serious additional financial problems for soybean farmers. (Disclosure: This author’s family farms corn and soybeans in Illinois.)
Overall, Trump’s trade war with China has been absolutely devastating for U.S. farmers. In January, Trump touted his signing of the so-called “phase one” trade deal with China as evidence that he was bringing the trade war to a successful conclusion. But as Vox reported, the deal “stops short of the comprehensive trade and reform agreement the Trump administration wanted when it launched its trade war with China in 2018” and “it’s still not clear if China can or will totally fulfill this obligation to buy US products, and even if it does, the guarantee is only for two years.” Writing for The Hill, Daniel Griswold, a senior research fellow for the conservative Mercatus Center, called the trade targets in the “phase one” deal “unrealistic” given that they would require an “unprecedented” increase in exports to China.
In any case, significant damage has already been done. Writing at Forbes about the “crushing truth” about Trump’s trade war, Erik Sherman noted that because of the standard business model for small farmers in the U.S., “small family farms (90% of all family farms) are in deep trouble normally” and that “these latest shocks are helping to drive up farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides.”
Sherman said relief given to farmers as a result of the trade war in the form of subsidies has not been equitably distributed, noting that “the biggest [farm] organizations sucked up the bulk of the money, putting small farmers ever further behind.” The release of the Sonnyside of the Farm episode comes days after Politico published an extensive expose about dysfunction under Perdue at USDA. Of many of the issues discussed in the report, Politico delved into payments to farmers, noting that “many in the industry” considered them insufficient to offset losses from the trade war, including corn farmers -- who “were outraged about receiving just one penny per bushel under the 2018 trade aid plan” compared to an average 44 cent per bushel drop in corn prices -- and blueberry farmers, who were also affected by the trade war but received no subsidies.
Perdue hosted the inaugural episode of the USDA podcast in October, when he traveled to Arkansas to meet with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is likely to run for governor in that state. They discussed farm policy only minimally during the podcast, and only in defense of Trump’s policies. Instead, Perdue and Sanders spent the majority of the episode heaping lavish praise upon Trump.
In December, Perdue hosted Gingrich for an episode in which the two attacked people who receive food stamps, with Perdue suggesting they don’t contribute anything to society. The cruelty has endured on that front, with the Trump administration pushing a proposed USDA rule that could leave more than 3 million people without access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and cause nearly 1 million children to lose their automatic enrollment in a program that provides breakfast and lunch at school.