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Trump conjures up a phony dispute with Ron DeSantis over China tariffs

“‘DeSanctis’ opposed my China tariffs — the ones where I gave you $28 billion, by the way. That was just a small portion of what we took in — we took in hundreds of billions of dollars from China. … Very simply, ‘DeSanctis’ sided with the communists in China. I sided with the farmers of America.”

— Former president Donald Trump, campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, July 7

Barnstorming the country, the GOP presidential front-runner has been regularly attacking his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for supposedly opposing the tariffs that Trump imposed on China during his presidency. In Trump’s telling, DeSantis — whom he often calls “DeSanctimonius” or simply “DeSanctis” — vehemently opposed Trump’s tariffs and the relief for farmers who suffered when China significantly cut its purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

In fact, Trump often suggests that DeSantis actively sought to block Trump’s actions against China. “DeSantis opposed my China tariffs and he opposed helping our farmers, Trump said in South Carolina. “He didn’t want to allow that deal to be made.” And in New Hampshire, Trump asserted: “Ron DeSantis totally opposed it but we overrode his opposition.”

Trump often suggests that the payments are a source of support for his campaign against DeSantis. “But after you give $28 billion to the farmers, I said, ‘Do you think the farmers are voting against me? I don’t think so,’” he said in South Carolina.

We asked the Trump campaign for evidence to back up his claims — and it was underwhelming.

As is often the case, Trump’s recounting of past events involves a mix of questionable, exaggerated and made-up elements. For instance:

He tells audiences that before he took office, no president ever dared to impose tariffs n China. In reality, tariffs have been collected on Chinese goods — such as tea — since the early days of the republic, when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act of 1789.He says he gave farmers “$28 billion.” That was the announced figure, but in the end the program provided nearly 20 percent less — about $23 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. A 2022 GAO report said at least $800 million of the funding was “improper” — going to wealthy farmers who did not qualify for aid.He says the United States “took in hundreds of billions of dollars from China.” But the tariffs — essentially a tax — were paid almost entirely by importers, such as U.S. companies, according to a 2023 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission. The importers passed on most or all of the costs to consumers or producers who used Chinese materials in their products. So Americans have been footing the bill for Trump’s tariffs, not the Chinese. The tariffs had garnered about $75 billion, not “hundreds of billions,” by the time Trump left office. As of June 14, the tariffs have reaped $183 billion because President Biden left them in place, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Research conducted by Joe Janzen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues found that the farm payments weren’t particularly well targeted to actual economic losses and helped lead to a larger-than-usual share of farmer income coming from the federal government. He also determined that the payments (along with covid relief in 2020) increased turnout for Trump — 677,512 votes with an estimated cost per vote gained of $66,124 — but that the votes were not enough to change the outcome of any state in the electoral college.

Now let’s turn to Trump’s accusation against DeSantis. The main piece of evidence presented by the Trump campaign are snippets from several interviews on Fox News in 2018, when DeSantis, then a member of Congress, was running in the GOP primary for governor.

Trump at the time was a big backer of DeSantis’s gubernatorial bid. A large part of one Fox Business Network interview concerned a viral ad aired by DeSantis that demonstrated his fervent loyalty to Trump by showing him “building a wall” with one child, reading a Trump book to another and dressing his baby in pro-Trump gear.

At one point, the host presses, is there any issue on which DeSantis disagrees with Trump? After hedging — “I don’t agree with anybody on everything 100 percent of the time” — and saying he always seeks to be constructive in his conversations with Trump, DeSantis finally offers one policy issue: “I’m not a fan of farm subsidies. To throw billions of dollars in farm subsidies, I want to get away from doing that.”

DeSantis, a fiscal conservative in Congress, appeared to be speaking generally about the billions in annual farm subsidies provided by Congress — crop insurance, commodity payments, conservation payments and disaster payments — that economists say distort markets. But the news host then referenced Trump’s aid to farmers in the wake of Chinese retaliation and asked whether DeSantis was against Trump’s fight with China on trade.

“I’ve been surprised at some of the success he’s gotten,” DeSantis said. “I’ve typically not been somebody that has supported tariffs and I don’t think that’s the end state that you want. But I think he’s leveraged that like he did with the European Union to get concessions. So if that’s what he’s able to do, then that’s probably going to benefit a lot of folks.” He warned that when Trump did not win concessions from China, Trump probably would have to change course.

In another 2018 interview cited by the Trump campaign, DeSantis praised Trump for confronting China but expressed worry about the impact on farmers.

“I think he’s right to identify the problems with China. People have been talking about that for years. Their behavior, in many ways, has gotten worse,” DeSantis said. “I think the issue is how are you going to confront China on these things? And when you’re using, relying primarily on tariffs, I just think the fear is that the retaliation against U.S., our farmers and other industries that we need to do well, could bear the brunt of that. And so I think that’s the concern.”

DeSantis added: “We had really been doing well on the Trump presidency, on the tax reform. So I think we’re on a great course based on what we’ve done in the Congress with taxes and regulations. And my fear is that this could throw some sand in the gears on some of this stuff.” But he said China had been taking actions “corrosive to a free-trade order” and “I think Trump’s the guy that maybe is going to deliver.”

These interviews do not suggest DeSantis vehemently opposed Trump’s actions on trade or for farmers. At most, he was lukewarm but keeping an open mind. Indeed, while some Republican lawmakers at the time had suggested they would seek to block Trump’s tariffs, DeSantis notably was not among them.

DeSantis in 2018 often was a ubiquitous presence on conservative media — one reason he caught Trump’s attention and won his endorsement — and he often indicated he thought Trump’s aggressive actions would ultimately pay off. These other interviews, however, were not cited by the Trump campaign.

“I don’t think his goal is to have higher tariffs,” DeSantis said in June 2018, in a third interview cited by the Trump campaign. “I think he is using this as part of the art of the deal to try to extract concessions and so I’ll give him runway to do that. I don’t want to undercut him in the negotiation.”

DeSantis was echoing a point Trump made repeatedly as he jacked up tariffs while president — that it was only a tactic to force serious negotiations.

A few days later, during a gubernatorial debate, DeSantis said: “Here’s the thing you have to understand. Donald Trump wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ He knows how to negotiate and I’ve talked to him about this, he does not want to see an end state where we have high tariffs across the board. … He’s trying to get concessions on behalf of the American people and I think we should give him the chance to do his thing. He’s a master negotiator.”

DeSantis at the time was not portrayed in the media as opposing the tariffs. In one 2018 report, Fox News made a distinction between DeSantis — quoting him as saying he supported the tariffs as leverage for trade negotiations that could be a “win” for Americans — and then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who by contrast called the tariffs “poison to economic growth.”

The DeSantis campaign noted that when asked recently directly whether he would boost tariffs on Chinese goods, DeSantis said in a June interview: “Yeah, I would. … I typically wouldn’t do that because, you know, generally the market does. But I think some of these things are so important for national security, we got to be willing to lean in on that.”

Trump is inventing a dispute here with DeSantis. In 2018, his Republican rival did not oppose Trump’s tariffs on China or aid to farmers — and did not take any steps to block either program. Instead, DeSantis said that even as a free trader he supported Trump’s stated goal of using the tariffs to force China to open more of its markets to U.S. goods. The Trump campaign is clipping a few isolated moments from some interviews, while ignoring others that undercut its narrative. It’s especially absurd for Trump to elevate this into an attack that DeSantis “sided with the communists in China” instead of American farmers. There is no evidence that backs up that incendiary claim.

Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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