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President Donald Trump during an Oval Office meeting with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, at the White House in Washington, April 10, 2018. The friendly visit represented a remarkable turnaround for a president who had once portrayed Qatar as part of the problem of terrorism. (Doug Mills/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

Trump considers Depression-era program to bail out farmers caught in his trade war with China

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is looking at using a Depression-era program to help bail out American farmers hurt by the escalating trade dispute with China, two people familiar with the process said.

Trump's aides are looking at ways to use the Commodity Credit Corporation, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was created in 1933 and is meant to offer a financial backstop for farmers.

But while the White House is considering the idea as a way to protect farmers if China slaps tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, a number of GOP lawmakers have warned the White House that the approach won't work. The program, the lawmakers say, will not be able to provide the needed relief to farmers, and using it will further inflame trade tensions with China.

The CCC can borrow up to $30 billion from the Treasury Department and extend that money to farm groups. If U.S. farmers see orders from China plummet because both countries create new layers of tariffs on exports, the White House wants to set up a bailout program for the U.S. agriculture industry.

No final decisions have been made, and the two people familiar spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations. The White House and USDA would not comment on using the CCC, saying they wanted to keep their strategy to help farmers secret for now.

"The President has directed the Secretary to use the authorities he has to protect farmers," the USDA said in a statement. "It wouldn't be prudent to give away our playbook and let China know exactly how we would plan to mitigate what they have threatened. But we can say this: we will not allow our agricultural producers to bear the brunt of China's retaliation, as we defend our own interests as a nation."

Some lawmakers are warning the White House not to pursue this approach. They are still trying to persuade Trump to stop short of engaging in a trade war with China, as Beijing has threatened to impose tariffs on U.S. agriculture products.

"CCC is used for emergency items," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "I know it has been misused in the past. I've seen that up front."

He said he has told the White House that the best approach is to ensure that farmers have a market to sell their products into, not a financial incentive for the products to sit idle.

"It's not that I'm diametrically opposed to it to the degree that I'd say no, I'm just saying I don't know how we implement this, I don't know what kind of cockamamie scheme that we could come up with that would be fair, that would be at least somewhat responsible," Roberts said.

Roberts is one of a number of GOP lawmakers who are planning to meet with Trump on Thursday to discuss the White House's adversarial approach to trade policy with China.

Trump is trying to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from China, and he is also threatening to impose tariffs on more than $150 billion in other exports from China if they don't take steps to reduce what he views as a trade imbalance. Beijing has responded angrily, threatening to retaliate with tariffs on their own, particularly aimed at the U.S. farming industry. This has led to a panic from farmers, who are leaning on lawmakers like Roberts to intervene before they see their orders plummet.

The threat has already led to wild gyrations in commodity prices, particularly for soybeans.