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WELCOME TO YOUR WEEKLY AG REPORT, after a dramatic few days of news in Washington. President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis — and that of senior White House aides, Trump campaign officials and Republican senators — has injected even more uncertainty into the final four weeks until Election Day.
If you’re just catching up, our POLITICO colleagues have all the angles covered, including what it means for the Senate agenda (i.e. the fight over Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee); Joe Biden’s campaign; and the flailing economic recovery.
If you’re wondering: The Agriculture Department said Friday that Secretary Sonny Perdue hadn’t been in direct contact with Trump in more than a week, per our Helena Bottemiller Evich. Perdue is regularly tested for Covid-19 as a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, including a negative result last week, according to a USDA spokesperson.
Any policy impact? Since his diagnosis, Trump has actually leaned into the stimulus talks between Democrats and his top economic officials more than at any point in recent months. If a deal ever comes together, it’s sure to include billions more dollars for farmers and food aid programs. But more on that later…
HAPPY MONDAY, OCT. 5! Your host, currently on his second large cup of coffee, is somewhat troubled by this latest coffee study. Send news and tips to [email protected] and @ryanmccrimmon, and follow us @Morning_Ag.
PERDUE FUELS ETHICS CONCERNS BY BOOSTING TRUMP: The USDA chief has drawn the wrath of Democrats and watchdog groups who say Perdue has blurred the lines between his public duties and political promotion of Trump, who is counting on farmers and rural voters to show up in force on Nov. 3, your host writes this morning.
The secretary has been Trump’s most effective ambassador to rural communities, visiting all 50 states since he was confirmed and vouching for the president’s affinity for farmers and ranchers. He’s also spearheaded the massive taxpayer aid programs that have kept producers afloat through Trump’s bruising trade war and the pandemic.
But lawmakers and ethics watchdogs are calling foul on some of Perdue’s actions as secretary. Most recently, USDA started requiring federal contractors to stuff signed letters from Trump into food boxes for hungry families, as Helena reported.
Food banks handing out the boxes complain that the coronavirus relief program is effectively being used to boost Trump’s image in the weeks before Election Day, and they’re worried about playing a role — and potentially losing their nonprofit tax status.
USDA says “politics has played zero role” in the effort, but House Democrats called the letters “inappropriate and a violation of federal law” in a letter to the department’s ethics office. The Hatch Act, which prohibits certain political activity by executive branch employees, has already tripped up Trump administration officials on a dozen occasions — but most have been let off with a warning letter.
“It’s not always clear when something is a violation of the Hatch Act versus something that’s just a gross, potentially abusive use of the powers of incumbency,” said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight.
In August, Perdue made a spirited pitch for voters to reelect Trump during an official event with North Carolina food producers, sending the audience into a chant of “Four more years!” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, alleging Perdue was improperly using the official appearance to boost Trump’s prospects in November. Schwellenbach called it a “point blank Hatch Act violation.”
Bottom line: Top officials throughout the Trump administration have frequently mixed politics with their public duties. But through his frequent visits to farm country and unprecedented bailout programs, Perdue has likely done more than other Cabinet secretaries to help shore up Trump’s political base ahead of the election.
HOW TRUMP’S SMALL-BALL TRADE WINS SCORE WITH FARMERS: The president has notched a few big-ticket trade victories in his first term — namely replacing NAFTA with the USMCA. But it’s his one-off trade deals, targeted to key swing states, that could register the most with farmers and ranchers, write POLITICO’s Ximena Bustillo and Sabrina Rodriguez.
On Twitter, at political rallies and in TV ads, the Trump campaign has played up his efforts to boost Maine lobstermen, Wisconsin dairy farmers, Florida produce growers and other corners of agriculture. Trump even featured some producers in those industries at the Republican National Convention in August.
“We got it done, and in the time of an election when you know what the swing states are, you brag about whatever the heck you can,” said Clete Willems, former deputy director of the National Economic Council under Trump. “It’s time to try to cash [those victories] in and get credit for it.”
But, but, but: The patchwork of incremental victories aren’t quite the sweeping overhaul of U.S. trade policy that Trump had promised, says Bill Reinsch, a trade specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even the new North American pact is seen as very similar to its predecessor, though it includes changes that should help U.S. wheat growers and dairy farmers.
“He’s raised some important issues, but he’s broken an enormous amount on the way,” Reinsch said. The trade wins that Trump did deliver “all ended up being tiny — certainly tiny in comparison to what he promised, and tiny in real terms,” he added.
LAST WEEK TODAY — It feels like last week was a year ago, so here’s a quick rundown of the top food and farm news you might have missed:
— Shutdown averted: Trump signed a continuing resolution that will fund the government through Dec. 11. You know the details by now: The bill keeps stimulus checks flowing to farmers, and it includes extra money and flexibility for food assistance programs. Next up, Congress will need to reach a deal after the elections on a sweeping appropriations package for the rest of fiscal 2021. The House passed its Agriculture-FDA measure in July, but Senate appropriations never published their own proposal.
— The latest farm stimulus plan: The House passed a Democrat-backed $2.2 trillion economic rescue package as top lawmakers and the Trump administration struggled to make progress in stimulus negotiations. The House measure won’t gain any traction in the Senate, but it shows the latest thinking on how to keep helping the farm industry and hungry families. The proposals include a $120 billion rescue fund for restaurants; direct aid for biofuel plants, cotton textile mills and other processors; new relief programs for livestock and dairy farmers; and a 15 percent increase in household nutrition benefits.
— The British beef is coming! For the first time in decades, a shipment of beef from the U.K. was making its way across the pond, with more to come in the weeks ahead. After a food safety audit earlier this year, the U.S. has lifted its longtime ban on British beef imports, which stemmed from a series of mad cow disease outbreaks in the 1980s and 1990s. The renewed beef trade could open the door to an estimated $85 million in British imports over the next five years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration wants London to lift its own blockade on American meat and poultry produced with artificial growth hormones — a leftover policy from the U.K.’s prior membership in the EU.
— A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in New York would be catastrophic for the state’s restaurant industry, which has already faced massive losses since March. Analysis from McKinsey and the Ford Foundation found that under a “virus resurgence scenario,” as many as 15,000 restaurants (up to 35 percent of those in the state) could permanently close, POLITICO New York’s Janaki Chadha reports.
— The Trump administration is opening an investigation into Vietnamese trade practices related to illegally harvested timber, along with a separate probe of currency undervaluation. “Using illegal timber in wood products exported to the U.S. market harms the environment and is unfair to U.S. workers and businesses who follow the rules by using legally harvested timber,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement.
— Three additional so-called murder hornets have been spotted in Washington, the first sightings in weeks, bringing the state’s total number to 12 so far. Washington agriculture officials were trying to eradicate the Asian giant hornets, which pose a massive threat to honeybees and the crops they pollinate, before the hornets started reproducing in mid-September. CBS has more.
— Almond milk remains the leader among plant-based dairy varieties, but oat milk has surpassed soy milk for second place in the increasingly competitive market. Sales of almond milk were nearly $1.5 billion in the 52 weeks ending Sept. 6, accounting for 63 percent of the total market. Food Dive has the deep-dive.