Trump pushes trade deal in formerly blue Wisconsin

President Donald Trump greets supporters as he arrives at General Mitchell International Airport, Friday, July 12, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump walks to greet supporters as he arrives at General Mitchell International Airport, Friday, July 12, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A member of the audience photographs President Donald Trump as he speaks at Derco Aerospace Inc., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, Friday, July 12, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump speaks at Derco Aerospace Inc., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, Friday, July 12, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

MILWAUKEE — President Donald Trump barnstormed for his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada during a visit to Wisconsin on Friday, hoping that its economic impact will help him to retain a battleground state vital to his re-election effort.

Trump told workers at Derco Aerospace the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which has yet to pass Congress, would be "vital to the future" of the nation's manufacturing economy and would provide "the strongest protections yet for American workers."

"I want you to have a level playing field because when you have a level playing field, nobody can beat you," he said.

Trump in 2016 became the first Republican to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 22,748 votes. Along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Rust Belt state was meant to be part of the Democrats' safety net against Trump, but Clinton failed to visit the state even once during the general election campaign — a fact the president misses few chances to mention.

Trump opened his Milwaukee speech by reminiscing about his Wisconsin victory on Election Day, then did a quick segue to promoting the trade pact.

"The deal will have a tremendous impact on your state," said Trump. "After years of rebuilding foreign nations, we are finally rebuilding our nation. It's as simple as that."

Wisconsin was one of two Midwest stops Friday designed to warm up Trump's 2020 campaign engine with fundraisers expected to bring in a combined $7 million, according to the Republican National Committee.

But his public focus was the USMCA, whose fate is uncertain in Congress, and of particular interest in Wisconsin.

Canada and Mexico are Wisconsin's top two foreign export markets. Last year, the state exported $31 million worth of products to Canada and $15.2 million worth of products to Mexico, according to census data.

Wisconsin imported $15.5 million worth of goods from Canada in 2018, behind only China. The state imported $9.3 million worth of goods from Mexico last year, the fourth highest amount of imports among the state's foreign trade partners.

Proponents of the deal believe it could also help the state's dairy farmers and Wisconsin's manufacturing sector, which contributes to nearly 20 percent of the state's gross domestic product.

"In Wisconsin, we have a trade surplus with Mexico and Canada," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who traveled Friday on Air Force One with the president. "I am happy to have NAFTA updates but we need to get it ratified. This is important for Wisconsin."

Johnson was referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the new trade deal is meant to replace.

But while Trump took credit for the state's economic gains, Wisconsin remains starkly divided over the president and appears a toss-up again in 2020.

The latest Marquette University Law School poll in April found 52% of respondents disapproved of how Trump is handling his job, while 46% approved. The poll also found that 54% of respondents said they would definitely or probably vote for someone else in 2020, while 42% said they would definitely or probably vote to re-elect him.

The Trump campaign plans an all-out blitz again in the state, one of a handful most analysts believe will determine the White House next year. Democrats also aren't ignoring the state this time: a half-dozen campaigned in Wisconsin this week and the party scheduled its nominating convention for Milwaukee next year.

Republicans have been seeking a vote on USMCA before the August recess to get in front of the presidential campaign season, but it's looking more likely that any vote, if one occurs at all, will have to wait at least until September. House Democrats want to strengthen enforcement of the agreement's labor and environmental obligations.

They also object to USMCA's 10-year exclusivity period for new biologic drugs that shields them from competition. More than 100 House Democrats wrote United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer this week encouraging him to amend the agreement "to increase competition and enhance patient access to more affordable prescription drugs."

Trump urged Democrats to view the USMCA "as a bipartisan bill" and to abandon their investigations into his administration in favor of sending the trade bill to "my desk today."

After Air Force One touched down in Wisconsin on Friday, Trump was greeted by cheering onlookers, including a woman who asked him to sign her Christian Louboutin heel. The president obliged.

Derco Aerospace was accused of fraud in a 2014 lawsuit by the federal government that alleges it and two related companies schemed to overbill on a Navy contract for airplane maintenance. The case is pending in federal court in Milwaukee. The companies have denied wrongdoing.

After visiting Wisconsin, Trump was traveling to Ohio for a fundraising dinner in Cleveland. Democrats are criticizing the president for appearing with Brian Colleran, a nursing home magnate who was forced to pay $19.5 million by the Justice Department for his role in a Medicare fraud nursing home scheme.

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Associated Press reporters Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, Julie Carr Smyth in Cleveland and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire

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