President Donald Trump has notched few big wins on trade, but he has scored some incremental victories that help key swing-state constituencies — from Maine lobstermen to Wisconsin dairy farmers and Florida produce growers. And with the election just a month away, administration officials are making sure to tout those efforts.
Trump has reminded voters at campaign rallies, in tweets and through television ads that trade has been a centerpiece of his administration. While many of the trade wins Trump has touted aren’t new, former administration officials and trade experts say it could help him garner support from voters in the key states he needs for reelection.
“We’ve been trying to do this stuff for years. We got it done and in the time of an election when you know what the swing states are, you brag about whatever the heck you can,” said Clete Willems, former deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Trump administration.
“It’s time to try to cash [the wins] in and get credit for it,” Willems said.
Trump’s trade agenda has long included nuggets that would help key constituencies in swing states and with the election just a month away, administration officials are making sure to sell it among those he hopes will tip the electoral scale in his favor.
Chief among those small wins are: opening Canada’s dairy market more for farmers — many of whom are concentrated in states like Wisconsin that he hopes to win again, launching trade investigations to please seasonal produce farmers in must-win Florida and opening the European market for lobstermen in Maine — a deal repeatedly praised last month during the Republican National Convention.
“A lot of these are activities that people have been pushing in the past or for a long time are now being touted in the context of the election,” Willems said.
The U.S. has been involved in lobster negotiations with Europe since 2018 when former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met with Trump at the White House and agreed to start trade negotiations. Those talks have been largely stalled and unproductive, but the recent lobster deal struck in July came just in time to help Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is struggling in her own reelection campaign and has publicly disagreed with Trump in the past.
The Trump campaign did not hold back in promoting the lobster achievement, though it was a long time coming. Jason Joyce, a Maine lobsterman, highlighted the European Union’s Agreement to drop its 8 percent tariff on U.S. lobsters and Trump’s move to reopen the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing during his speech at the RNC. He noted Obama’s original executive order that blocked fishermen from the area, a move he said was done to cater to environmental activists.
After the EU lobster deal was announced in August, Trump tweeted: “Beautiful Maine Lobsters will now move tariff-free to Europe! … I am proud to help the great people of Maine!”
Meanwhile, Trump and administration officials have gotten to highlight the biggest changes from NAFTA in his new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The deal only went into effect in July, so companies and workers have yet to unlock most of the deal’s limited benefits. But one of the biggest changes was expanding market access for U.S. dairy in Canada, an issue that dates back to the original NAFTA deal going into effect in 1995.
Still, Vice President Mike Pence touted how USMCA is expected to increase dairy exports by more than $3 million during his campaign stop in La Crosse, Wis.
“You deserve to know that Sen. [Kamala] Harris put their radical environmental agenda ahead of Wisconsin dairy and ahead of Wisconsin power,” he said at the Dairyland Power Cooperative, referring to the Democratic vice presidential candidate’s decision to vote against the USMCA for not including strong enough environmental provisions.
“But with President Trump we will always put Wisconsin farmers, businesses and families first,” Pence added.
Other nuggets for swing states include the recent announcement from USTR and the Agriculture and Commerce departments to take specific actions in investigating the impact of seasonal produce imports on domestic growers — a move aimed at pleasing Florida and Georgia growers.
It comes after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer promised to help tackle what seasonal growers say is unfair competition from Mexico on produce, including blueberries, bell peppers and strawberries. The reality is the move is shallow as it will likely not deliver a win for growers before the election, but pitches Trump as responsive to their long-standing concerns.
Former administration officials and trade experts say it’s clearly a good strategy to showcase the small wins — even if he’s failed to deliver on some of his bigger promises, including a full-on Japan deal, phase two China deal or breakthrough with the European Union or India.
“The advantage of incumbency is you can do things and take action and enact your policies that have positive political impact for you,” said Tim Keeler, a former USTR and Treasury Department official. “It can’t hurt him.”
However, USMCA is the end of the road for large agreements in the president’s first term. Trump landed a phase one deal with China earlier this year, but given heightened tensions with Beijing over the pandemic and China falling behind on its promised purchases, it has not been touted on the campaign trail. One bright spot is ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and United Kingdom, but both sides are still a long way from striking a final deal — and it would also have to be passed by Congress, which took over a year for lawmakers to do in the case of USMCA.
“I’m not seeing a lot of victories,” said Bill Reinsch, a trade policy specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s raised some important issues but he’s broken an enormous amount on the way. He has very little to show for it other than USMCA.”
Trump’s trade victories “all ended up being tiny, certainly tiny in comparison to what he promised and tiny in real terms,” Reinsch said.