GRANITE CITY — President Donald Trump on Thursday heralded the renewed success of a Metro East 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."
Flanked by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, the president took a brief tour of the plant, humming again after the restart of a steel-making blast furnace following Trump's tariff announcement in February. For decades the economic engine of the Metro East suburb, the factory is in the process of restarting its second blast furnace, which is expected to be online by October and bring the worker count there back to some 1,500 people.
"Thanks to our tariffs, idle factories throughout our nations are roaring back to life," Trump told an enthusiastic crowd of about 500 supporters.
As the motorcade made its way through town, the streets were lined with mostly supporters holding signs saying "thank you" and "MAGA," short for his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." One child held a sign that said "You steel our" hearts.
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 out of national security concerns and in solidarity with workers who had been hurt by unfair trade agreements. In the past, Trump said Thursday, "Our steel towns became ghost towns" and the U.S. engaged in "the worst trade deals ever made in history." Now, he said, he was negotiating better terms.
"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," Trump said.
On the outskirts of St. Louis, more than 2,000 workers from Granite City Works were given layoff notices just before Thanksgiving 2015. U.S. Steel cited low oil prices —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.
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.
But not all steelworkers were excited by the president's visit. Steelworker Mike Dickinson was among a group protesting Trump on Thursday.
“I would be in support of tariffs. But I can’t be in support of Trump because all the other issues kind of outweigh the tariffs,” he said, citing the president's environmental policies and his nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. A small group of protesters in Granite City chanted "traitor" as the motorcade passed.
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, where he was joined by two Iowa Republicans, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Rod Blum.
Business leaders and Republicans in Congress have said the tariffs could hurt companies reliant on steel and aluminum raw materials in their manufacturing and raise prices.
That includes Mid Continent Nail Corp. in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, which has shuttered a multimillion-dollar plant and is "on the brink of extinction" and blames its issue on Trump's tariffs.
"This is a county that went 79 percent for Trump so people are certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," said spokesman James Glassman. "But their jobs are at stake because of this misguided tariff."
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, and said companies were wrongly blaming Trump for their issues.
"This is a real vindication that the president's trade policy is starting to work," Ross said of Wednesday's EU deal.
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."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.