President Donald Trump visited Granite City on Thursday to tout the hundreds of jobs that have been brought back to a reopened steel mill — and to push back against criticism that his escalating trade disputes are hurting American workers and farmers.
“Today the the blast furnace is blazing bright and we are once again pouring American steel into the spine into our country,” Trump told a crowd at the mill.
He added, “We love our steelworkers. We’re here today to celebrate a great victory.”
The president at one point was joined on the stage by workers from the mill.
Neil Whitt, a plant manager at the mill, said: “I look around here and see smiling faces. We owe that to you, Mr. President.”
Trump’s visit to the mill was the third stop this week in a tour of Midwestern cities, with a previous stop in Kansas City, Mo., and a Dubuque, Iowa, stop Thursday morning. In Kansas City, he asked those in attendance at a VFW convention for patience with 25 percent tariffs on imported steel and other products.
The Granite City mill, owned by Pittsburgh-based United States Steel Corp., recently restarted one blast furnace after the Trump administration announced the tariffs.
Restarting the furnace brought back 500 jobs — jobs that have been deeply missed in the city of roughly 28,000 nestled in an industrial corridor along the Mississippi River. More than 2,000 employees were laid off in 2015. The company promised an additional 300 by October, when it plans to fire up a second blaster.
Market conditions and customer demand for U.S. Steel had improved leading up to the tariffs, which Dan Simmons, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1889, has called “icing on the cake.”
Tariffs on imported steel have raised concerns among some farmers who say they’ve lost money because of retaliatory Chinese duties on soybeans and pork.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week a $12 billion emergency aid program to help farmers who have been hurt by retaliatory tariffs. Some farmers say they prefer long-term stability in trade rather than a one-time payment.
But Trump said the steel industry means more to the United States than jobs.
“We need steel mills for national security,” he said, adding: “If you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country.”
The president said he thinks U.S. Steel plans to open or expand seven new factories, a statement he has repeated in recent speeches. But U.S. Steel has not confirmed any such expansions outside of bringing back jobs at the Granite City mill, with the most recent expansion announcement on their website mentioning only Granite City Works.
The president said U.S. Steel will bring back a total of 1,000 jobs by the fall in Granite City, though the company has indicated 800 total workers will be back on the job by the fall.
Trump was on stage for more than 50 minutes at the Granite City mill.
Trump announced efforts Wednesday to work with the European Union on reducing tariffs on products such as steel, aluminum and soybeans, according to The Associated Press. He and European leaders agreed to open talks to tear down trade barriers, a decision he described Thursday as a “breakthrough.”
Trump called the agreement “fair and reciprocal,” during Thursday’s speech. While Trump says the EU will “buy lots of soybeans,” China bought 31 percent of all U.S. soybean production in 2016, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“America never surrenders,” Trump said in an address to workers at the Granite City mill. “We don’t wave the white flag.”
Supporters of the president gathered on 19th Street in Granite City around noon. Lisa Uhlemeyer, born and raised in Granite City, is a Trump supporter who credits him with bringing back steel jobs to her hometown. She said she doesn’t believe “fake news” about farmers hurting because of tariffs, though she acknowledged some might need money from the $12 billion aid program.
Trump, during his speech, said farmers “are our patriots. Everybody is going to be back because we have the greatest farms in the world.”
Protesters began gathering at the same time at Civic Park. Robyne Omara of the anti-Trump organization Action Metro East said they were there to “express our dissatisfaction” with the Trump administration and tariffs.
Omara said she’s “very excited” for Granite City Works to reopen, but said tariffs are harming Illinois farmers. “They don’t want a handout,” she said of the aid program.
The Kasprovich family, originally from Granite City, drove from Ohio for Trump’s visit. The family has a relative who works in the steel mill. “He (Trump) saved the steel mill,” Hilary Kasprovich said.
Two local Republican congressmen — U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis — joined Trump during his visit to the mill in support of the administration’s tariffs. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus also was scheduled to attend.
“They’re fighting for you,” Trump said. “Those three people fight for you all the time.”
Though the White House said this is an official trip and won’t involve any campaigning, Bost said he has wanted Trump to visit ever since jobs started coming back to the mill. Bost even flew with Trump on the trip from Washington, D.C., to Granite City.
“Five months ago, I went to the White House and brought the plight of Granite City’s steelworkers directly to the president,” Bost said. “The administration heard our concerns and took action to stop the unfair foreign trade practices that were killing our jobs. I was pleased to join the president in Granite City today to celebrate 800 steel families going back to work, but our fight doesn’t end here. As the chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus, I will continuing to do all I can to preserve this American-made industry.”
Bost said he supports the emergency aid program as short-term relief while the president’s administration works on long-term trade negotiations. Local and national farming organizations were more reserved in their praise of the aid package, favoring trade and urging a path to rescinding tariffs.
Lynn Rohrscheib, chairwoman of the Illinois Soybean Growers, said in a statement: “We continue to advocate for an end to this trade war and echo industry concerns for trade, not aid.”
Brendan Kelly, a Democrat challenging Bost in the Nov. 6 election, said “it’s a good thing to see steelworkers in Granite City getting back to work,” though he called the trade policies “disconnected,” saying they’ve “done a lot of damage in Southern Illinois.”
“If we don’t come together and understand and change that, we’ll be right back at square one — or worse — in a few months,” Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly planned a “town hall about organized labor” for Thursday in Granite City.
Before Trump even arrived in the St. Louis-area, the United Steelworkers Union showed its support for Bost’s Democratic opponent in November.
“Mike Bost betrayed our nation when he voted for the Fast Track Authority. This not only hurts Steelworkers — it has devastated Southern Illinois,” said Steelworkers District 7 Director Mike Millsap. “U.S.W. members are proud to stand with our brother, Brendan Kelly, who will put the workforce of Southern Illinois first.”
Fast Track Authority gives the president ability to negotiate trade deals, which Congress can approve or deny, but not amend.
The president’s visit to the mill coincides with the tight race between Bost and Kelly, state’s attorney for St. Clair County. Vice President Mike Pence visited the area last week to support Bost in that race. Green Party candidate Randy Auxier also is on the fall ballot.
Much like the vice president’s visit to the area, Trump’s visit to Granite City was being met with protesters as well as supporters.
Betsy Ann, 43, of Granite City came with signs supporting Trump to watch the motorcade go by.
“It’s extremely important,” Ann said. “He’s making the steel mill go back to work. A lot of people need jobs. He’s delivering jobs for our area.”
Larry Allen, a retired steelworker, said he is happy the mill is up and running. He said he thinks farmers should only see short-term issues.
“I think the farmers will eventually be happy,” Allen said.
Among the protesters was Paula Shelton, a farmer from Montgomery County. She said she has seen her income drop by 35 percent, and she doesn’t want an emergency aid program.
“It’s going to cost taxpayers and it’s a Band-Aid. We do not want a bailout.”
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce said the president needs a thorough and targeted strategy to remedy trade problems.
“The president has led an aggressive effort to combat trade disadvantages that exist for Illinois employers and should be commended for that,” Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Maisch said. “However, we also urge the president to consider not only the new steel jobs he celebrates today, but the potential job losses and jobs that never get created as a result of the tariff battle now underway with our trading partners.”