WASHINGTON -- Moving to offset the impact his trade war has had on rural America, President Donald Trump has bypassed Congress to send some $20 billion in aid to farmers, mostly going to a bundle of states that are essential to his reelection chances next year.
The payments have ranged from as little as $2 for some small-scale farmers to more than $1 million each for some corporate agricultural enterprises.
To sidestep Congress, which has long considered price supports for farmers its exclusive domain, the administration cited an obscure law from the 1940s that was passed in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
Until Trump, no president had ever used that law to make direct payments to farmers, let alone tens of billions.
The strategy bears some resemblance to the one Trump used to shift millions of dollars that Congress appropriated for the military to pay for sections of his border wall. Unlike the border wall money, however, the farm aid has not drawn challenges from Congress, perhaps because Democrats have their own political reasons for not wanting to oppose help for rural areas in politically important states.
The payments are likely to reach nearly $25 billion by early next year, making them roughly twice the net cost to taxpayers of former President Barack Obama's auto industry bailout during the Great Recession of 2008. Even so, they may fall short of fully covering farmers' losses from the trade war with China or fully mitigating the political fallout Trump has faced in some Midwestern communities.
It's not that farmers are in open revolt against Trump. Surveys and interviews suggest most are sticking with him and hoping for the best. But the trade war's impact -- especially the uncertainty about future policies -- could dampen enthusiasm come Election Day next year.
"Turnout is the key question: Are they just going to stay home or are they going to vote for Trump?" asked Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who has researched rural attitudes and the political and cultural divide between rural and urban Americans.
If farmers feel too pinched by the trade conflict, "the greatest impact will be a lack of enthusiasm -- and they'll stay home and not vote -- which could make a huge difference," she said.
For farmers, the cost of the trade war can be measured in lost markets in China, which has been by far the largest buyer of the soybeans and other grain crops that are the lifeblood of agriculture across the Midwest and Great Plains.