GRANITE CITY, Illinois — Making his first visit to Illinois since winning the White House, President Donald Trump on Thursday trumpeted the renewed success of a Downstate steel mill, pushing back against criticism that his escalating trade disputes are hurting American workers and farmers.
The president pointed to the U.S. Steel plant’s reopening as a success story after he slapped tariffs on imported steel and aluminum last spring. On Wednesday, he and European leaders agreed to open talks on trade, a decision he called a breakthrough.
“America never surrenders,” Trump said in an address to workers at the company’s steel coil warehouse in Granite City. “We don’t wave the white flag.”
Trump held events in Iowa and Illinois a day after reaching an accord with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the White House to discuss tearing down trade barriers and address U.S. tariffs on steel imports. Trump also said the EU had agreed to buy more soybeans from American farmers, who have seen prices decline sharply since China imposed retaliatory tariffs.
Farmers and manufacturers have criticized tariffs imposed by Trump, warning that they will spur a global trade war and retaliatory tariffs from countries like China, Mexico and Canada that will damage their livelihoods and raise prices on consumers.
But Trump said he stepped forward to protect the U.S. steel industry with tariffs of 25 percent on imports for national security concerns and in solidarity with workers who had been hurt by what he called unfair trade agreements. In the past, Trump said Thursday, “Our steel towns became ghost towns,” but after the U.S. engaged in “the worst trade deals ever made in history” under previous administration, he was now negotiating better terms.
Gov. Bruce Rauner — who has kept his distance from Trump — did not attend the event, citing conflicting governmental and campaign events in other parts of the state.
But three of the state’s Republican congressmen did attend, including Mike Bost and Rodney Davis, both of whom are facing stiff Democratic challengers. Also on hand was a Rep. John Shimkus.
Trump sprinkled shout-outs to all three in his remarks, telling the crowd “They fight for you.”
Trump brought to the stage the company’s CEO and workers, who spoke of the importance of the plant to their community.
Earlier, Trump said his talks with European allies would benefit Iowa farmers who have been hurt by the fallout from his protectionist trade measures.
“We just opened up Europe for you farmers. You’re not going to be too angry with Trump, I can tell you,” the president said at the workforce development event in Peosta, Iowa, where he was joined by two Iowa Republicans, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Rod Blum.
Farmers and manufacturers have expressed wariness over the Trump tariffs, warning that they will spur a global trade war and retaliatory tariffs from countries like China, Mexico and Canada that will damage their livelihoods and raise prices on consumers.
Business leaders and Republicans in Congress have said they could hurt companies reliant on steel and aluminum raw materials in their manufacturing and raise prices for consumers.
Iowa is among the nation’s leading producers of soybeans, and the event at Northeast Iowa Community College came on the heels of the Agriculture Department’s announcement of $12 billion in temporary aid to help farmers deal with retaliatory tariffs from U.S. trading partners.
Tariffs threaten more than $3.8 billion in Illinois exports, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and major companies including Caterpillar and Boeing already have been hurt.
But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, briefing reporters on Air Force One, said more jobs have been created by the steel and aluminum tariffs than are being lost. He said the tariffs were instrumental in the EU talks.
“This is a real vindication that the president’s trade policy is starting to work,” Ross said.
On the outskirts of St. Louis, more than 2,000 workers laid off from Granite City Works were given layoff notices just before Thanksgiving 2015. U.S. Steel cited low oil prices — because the mill produces steel for oil refineries and the auto industry — as well as the availability of cheap, imported steel.
Granite City Works is now near its 2015 employment level of 2,100, with a second blast furnace to be operating by this fall. Jobs there mean dozens more at steel-processing plants throughout the city that bend, cut, coat or reshape the raw product, said James Amos, Granite City’s economic development director.
Trump said, “After years of shutdowns and cutbacks, today the blast furnace here in Granite City is blazing bright, workers are back on the job and we are once again pouring new American steel into the spine of our country.”
David Burritt, U.S. Steel’s president and CEO, said the company was experiencing a “renaissance” and credited Trump’s actions for the steel industry’s revival. “The president has been in office really only a short time, but a lot has happened for our company because of the president,” Burritt said.
Trump appeared eager to keep promoting more good economic news. The Commerce Department delivers its first estimate of second-quarter gross domestic product on Friday, and the president signaled the numbers would be in line with what economists have forecast: a sizzling growth rate of 4 percent or more.
“You’re going to see on Friday what happens with GDP. Lot of predictions. Lot of predictions,” Trump said in Iowa. “I told you before, some with a 5 in front of it … we’ll take anything with a 4 in front.”
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville in Washington and Sara Burnett in Chicago and Sun-Times staff contributed to this report.