Trump slammed California farmers with tariffs. Now he’s stiffing them on aid

Juan Carlos Manuel of Merced, empties a container of freshly picked peaches on the orchard at Weimer Farms in Atwater, Calif., Thursday, July 16, 2015.
Juan Carlos Manuel of Merced, empties a container of freshly picked peaches on the orchard at Weimer Farms in Atwater, Calif., Thursday, July 16, 2015. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

You can hardly blame California’s farmers, growers and vintners for feeling like pawns in President Donald Trump’s reckless and self-destructive trade war.

His tit-for-tat tariffs with China are already hurting agriculture in the Central Valley and across the state, and the pain is only going to get worse.

Adding insult to injury, in Trump’s tariff relief for farmers, California is getting the short end of the stick. Starting in September, the $12 billion package will give cash to the producers of commodities such as corn, cotton, pork, soybeans and wheat – all grown in red states. But big-money crops from deep-blue California? Fruits, nuts, vegetables and wine will apparently only be eligible for federal government purchases of surplus produce.

It couldn’t be partisan politics, right?

The California Farm Bureau Federation is understandably pushing for more equal treatment. So are California’s Republican members of Congress, who have been urged by the Sacramento Bee editorial board and others to speak out more forcefully.

In a July 31 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the lawmakers said tariffs are “making fruits, vegetables and tree nuts in our districts significantly more expensive than their competitors” and “threatening the economic livelihood of our businesses and communities.”

The aid package isn’t enough, according to the letter circulated by Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock and joined by Valley Republicans Devin Nunes and David Valadao. Republicans Ed Royce and Ken Calvert also signed it, as well as California Democratic Reps. Ami Bera, Jim Costa, Jimmy Panetta, Julia Brownley and Salud Carbajal.

When there’s public criticism from California Republicans – who have defended the administration on immigration, the environment and taxes, and given the president a free pass on all sorts of outrageous behavior – Trump should take a hint.

But, of course, he isn’t. In a series of tweets, Trump said China “is spending a fortune on ads and P.R. trying to convince and scare our politicians to fight me.” He went on: “Tariffs will make our country much richer than it is today. Only fools would disagree.”

In Trumpworld, fellow Republicans are apparently fools for standing up for California farmers. The president needs to rethink that along with his tactics on tariffs.

California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and demand in China had been up this year. But in June, when Trump’s tariffs started taking effect, almond shipments to China and Hong Kong plummeted by 47 percent compared to June 2017, according to Beacon Economics.

Contracts for future deliveries to China have dried up, and the impact will deepen as the harvest starts, according to the Almond Board of California. “These trade disruptions and the resulting uncertainty have put the California almond industry at a competitive disadvantage,” it said in a statement.

Also in June, California wine exports dropped 15 percent and cherry exports declined by 36 percent, according to Beacon Economics. Farmers who grow fruits and vegetables are especially vulnerable because the produce is perishable, so they have to find alternative markets quickly.

Farmers won’t be the only exporters in California hurt by Trump’s tariffs. Other industries also are seeking help. For instance, 20,000 pleas from companies seeking relief from steel tariffs have already flooded the U.S. Commerce Department. But two big steel manufacturers with ties to Trump administration officials, including U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, have successfully objected to hundreds of these requests, The New York Times reports.

So instead of free trade and open markets – remember when Republicans were in favor of free-market capitalism? – we’re now headed toward what amounts to a mob-style protection racket, with a clearly corrupt administration deciding who gets help and who doesn’t.

And there’s no sign of a cease-fire in the trade war with China, the world’s second largest economy behind the U.S.

On Wednesday, China announced additional retaliatory tariffs on $16 billion of U.S. goods and has warned about more tariffs on agricultural crops. That follows duties on $3 billion in response to the U.S. tariffs on aluminum and steel, and a second round of 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion of products that took effect in July.

Trump, apparently, is increasingly angry that China isn’t backing down. He is threatening to increase tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. On Tuesday, the U.S. Trade Representative followed through, saying it will begin slapping a 25 percent tariff on $16 billion more in Chinese products on Aug. 23.

While most experts agree the tariffs are raising costs for U.S. businesses and consumers, they don’t appear to be hurting China as much, despite what the president claims. China’s trade surplus with the U.S. – which really riles up Trump – dipped only slightly to $28.09 billion in July from a record $28.97 billion in June.

And now Chinese media has started attacking Trump personally, warning that his “street fighter-style deceitful drama of extortion and intimidation” won’t work.

Better a war of words – or tweets – than a trade war that causes real and lasting damage down on the farm across California and America. Farmers and their representatives in Congress – Republicans and Democrats – can’t let up in pressuring the Trump administration to stop this madness.