New U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday explained President Donald Trump’s turn-around on the North American Free Trade Agreement as just part of the negotiations in his deal making.
Under heavy fire from farmers, farm groups and others who were critical of Trump’s promise to terminate NAFTA, on Thursday the president announced that after talking to the governments of Canada and Mexico, he plans instead to renegotiate the trade agreement.
Perdue, in Kansas City on his first stop outside Washington since his swearing-in this week, says Trump is a deal-maker, much as Perdue was a grain trader in a previous job.
“So saying something was contemplated is not necessarily saying something was done or was going to be done,” Perdue says. "I think the ultimate outcome is what we’re interested in.”
NAFTA is generally popular with farmers, as Canada and Mexico are respectively the No. 1 and 3 markets for farm exports, worth billions of dollars. Perdue says trade deals like NAFTA, though, can hurt domestic sectors and that it was responsible for jobs lost in the U.S. auto sector.
“He also has to send a signal to Canada and Mexico and to Congress as well, frankly, that he’s serious about renegotiating NAFTA,” Perdue says. “And he believes there are some things that need to be redone, retooled.”
Perdue, a former Georgia governor, was one of the last of Trump’s cabinet nominees to be confirmed. While he waited, Trump announced a budget that will cut some 20 percent from USDA’s $140 billion budget, including cuts to water programs, the agency’s statistical services, and foreign food aid.
The proposed budget cuts are tough, Perdue says, but he’s happy that Trump is making good on a campaign promise of fiscal conservatism.
“As an American facing a $20 trillion debt, with 14 grandchildren, I don’t think it’s my moral responsibility to kick that debt to those 14 grandchildren,” he says.
Asked what his top priority is for USDA, Perdue says he told employees on Thursday that he wants the agency to be a fun place to work, but he wants it to offer better service and be customer friendly.
“You go into Chick-fil-A and they say, ‘My pleasure, how can I serve you?’ You go into the Waffle House, they’re open 24-seven. So we want to be available.
“We want to say, when people walk across the counter, we’ll say ‘What will you have Mr. Farmer? How can I help you today? It’s my pleasure.’ Do it with a smile, do it with quality.”