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In visit to Minnesota, Pence touts Trump trade policy

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Vice President Mike Pence waves to steel workers in St. Paul.
Vice President Mike Pence waves to steel workers as he arrives to address them at the Gerdau Ameristeel mill Thursday in St. Paul where he promoted the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Jim Mone | AP Photo

Vice President Mike Pence spent part of Thursday in Minnesota, promoting the Trump administration's trade policies and trying to build support for the president's replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. 

Pence first visited a farm near Glyndon in the northwestern part of the state, and then stopped at Gerdau, a St. Paul company that mills recycled steel.

The locations highlighted the difficulty of the administration's trade stance, including tariffs, which are hurting farmers while they boost the steel industry. 

During his visit to the steel mill, Pence played up the strong economy and said he and President Trump deserve some of the credit for it.

"American steel is producing again for America and the world," he said to a crowd of cheering workers.

"We need the help of men and women who work in steel to keep the momentum in this economy rolling. We need to forge trade deals that put American jobs and American workers first, and that's exactly what the president and I have been doing since the first day we took office."

During his Minnesota appearance, Pence highlighted opportunity from the proposed U.S. trade agreement with Canada and Mexico — the USMCA. 

"We are going to level the playing field, and American workers are going to win like never before in trade with our neighbors to the north and the south," he said. "It is time for Congress to pass the USMCA and keep this economy moving, Minnesota."

Pence said the USMCA would update NAFTA and be a much better deal for workers.

"We need steelworkers to be heard, and we need Minnesota to be heard," Pence said, urging Congress to pass the deal. 

It's "tricky business" for Pence to be selling a package that includes a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum, said Robert T. Kudrle, professor of international trade and investment policy at the University of Minnesota.

Mexican and Canadian officials don't like it, nor do most Republicans in Congress, Kudrle said.

"The fact that it is still there is something [Pence] can talk to the steelworkers about," said Kudrle, who added that some of his audiences have no clue about tariffs because they were "kind of a thing of the past until a few years ago."

Oddly enough, Kudrle said, most of the USMCA is "really not very different" from the original NAFTA deal that "the president said was the worst agreement ever signed."

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican whose district includes northeast Minnesota's Iron Range, said the steel tariffs have stopped countries like China from dumping steel into the market, noting that U.S. shipments went up 5 percent last year while steel imports dropped by 4 million tons. At the same time, he said the USMCA will allow farmers to export more products to Canada.

"President Trump and his administration is not trying to pit the farmers against the steelworkers or the manufacturers against the steelworkers at all," Stauber said. "Our Minnesota farmers not only feed our Minnesotans and this country, they also feed the world — and we want to make sure that we give them the opportunity to move their products across this globe in a free and fair way."

Hanley Falls corn and soybean farmer Tim Velde said low commodity prices are driving his peers out of business or, as in his case, forcing them to operate at a loss. He appeared at a Minnesota DFL news conference Thursday to lay blame on tariffs and other trade policies from the Trump administration.

"The soybean market, it's not just flip a switch and it's going to be back there again. It took years for us to build that market up. It's going to take years for that market to come back again," he said.

Between the two of them, Trump and Pence have made five visits to Minnesota in the past 10 months. Trump, who came closer than any Republican in decades to winning the state in 2016, has repeatedly said he believes he can win here next year. 

State DFL Party Chair Ken Martin vowed that it will not happen. 

"As Minnesotans we are not going to forget the harm that Mike Pence and Donald Trump and their administration has caused to countless families throughout this state," Martin said. "The DFL will be organizing hard this year along with many others laying the ground work needed to bet Mike Pence and Donald Trump in 2020."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.