U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley

June 27, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley says he’s “nervous” that President Donald Trump’s brinksmanship on trade could have “catastrophic” effects on Iowa farms. Moreover, Trump flat out doesn’t grasp the role of the presidency itself, the Iowa Republican and veteran senator said during an interview with this newspaper in his Washington, D.C., office.

“I’m not sure he understands the institution,” Grassley said last Wednesday afternoon. “I think he’s acting like a CEO of a company and he’s learning very slowly that you can’t do in our Constitution what a CEO of a corporation can do. And he’s learning it gradually. But I don’t think he really understood what the presidency was all about. I think he’s probably still learning. I’m sure he’s a heckuva lot smarter now than he was.”

Grassley, noting that farmers are experiencing a five-year, 52-month downturn in the agricultural economy, is joining his Iowa colleagues in Congress urging Trump to resolve trade differences and avoid a trade war.

“I’m nervous,” Grassley said in the interview. “If the president is smart enough to make this thing work with some sort of a compromise with China, that China is going to change some of their trade policies, then it’s going to be a win for everybody, but if it doesn’t work out the way the president hopes it works out or plans that it works out — and I think he thinks he’s got a plan — then I think it’s going to be catastrophic.”

Iowa is second in the nation in agricultural exports, meaning Trump is gambling with the economic lives of Iowans, Grassley said.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a businessman run the country rather than a governor or a general,” Grassley said. “He’s probably doing the same thing he did as a real-estate guy. He probably starts out with an extreme position knowing he’s going to compromise and he brings it to the brink, and if he goes over the brink, it’s going to be catastrophic, but if he doesn’t go over the brink and there’s an agreement, I think we’ll be better off.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign Grassley, in an interview then, said Trump conducted himself with humility in private, closed-door meetings. Grassley said he thinks that’s still the case.

“I think if you’re one on one you come to that conclusion, but there’s nothing about his public persona that would leave you to believe he’s humble,” Grassley said.

Does the president listen to Grassley?

“I think so,” Grassley said.

Prior to the interview last week in his office Grassley met with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, a former governor of Iowa.

According to Grassley and Ernst’s offices, one topic of concern was trade between the United States and China, and the impact tariffs will have on Iowa agriculture. Another focus of the meeting was production of the deadly drug fentanyl in China and its increasing consumption in America as the country faces a growing opioid, heroin and fentanyl epidemic.

“We talked trade, we talked about North Korea a little bit,” Grassley said.

Most of all, Grassley said, he was interested in Branstad’s thoughts on how China will react to the back and forth on trade and tariffs.

“His answers to that I can’t give you, but I don’t think it was anything that would surprise you,” Grassley said.

The big issue on Capitol Hill last week: the federal government’s separation of families during immigration proceedings.

Grassley said his office received “a massive amount of calls” on the matter.

“I would say it’s reaching a point where daily it’s almost like the anti-Trump calls of all last year,” he said.

In just one day, Wednesday, Grassley received calls from 503 people opposed to family separation. On that same day, the office tallied seven calls from people concerned about trade and tariffs.

“You keep the parents and the kids together,” he said.

Grassley also supports legislation to bring in more judges so there aren’t months-long processes for detainees.

On Iowa politics, Grassley, a strong supporter of Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, said the GOP strategy of attacking Democrat Fred Hubbell, a well-to-do Des Moines businessman, as too rich for the job is misguided and could backfire on the GOP in November. Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, tagged Hubbell, a member of one of Des Moines’ founding families, as “Sir Frederick Hubbell.”

“By insinuating something that’s kind of ad hominem, I don’t think that’s smart,” Grassley said. “It’s pretty obvious at least to people in Des Moines that he’s a very wealthy person. It may not be in New Hartford, Iowa, but it wouldn’t hurt for the people in New Hartford, Iowa, to hear that. But I think the ‘Sir’ thing is a problem.”

Privately, other Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington tell me they agree with Grassley on this.

Grassley, who was first elected by Iowa voters (to the Legislature) during to Eisenhower administration, says he’d advise a different approach for Reynolds.

“I think that the voters want you to stick to policy,” Grassley said. “And I think there’s plenty with what he (Hubbell) wants to accomplish that is bad policy, and if you just talk about the policy, you’ll win the election.”