THE TENNESSEAN – JOEL EBERT and JOEY GARRISON – During a whirlwind trip to Nashville, President Donald Trump on Monday touted his recently approved tax bill and signed an executive order aimed at promoting the expansion of broadband internet into rural areas that lack connectivity.
Speaking to a crowd of nearly 5,000 American Farm Bureau Federation members, Tennessee Republican lawmakers, and other supporters, Trump declared, “The American dream is roaring back.”
He then spent the next 35 minutes defending his first year in office in a speech tailored for the audience of farmers — a group that remains one of the pillars of his political base.
In a rarity for the president, Trump stayed mostly on script and was more policy-focused than usual, offering less of the firebrand populist rhetoric that has defined his first year in the White House.
“You are forgotten no more,” Trump told the crowd gathered at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center for farm bureau’s annual convention. “We’re fighting for our farmers and we’re fighting for our country and for our great American flag. We want our flag respected.
“And we want our national anthem respected also,” Trump said, receiving a standing ovation as impromptu chants of “U-S-A” broke out.
The president’s address marked his first major policy speech in weeks and came amid a tumultuous period prompted by the release of a controversial new book that has put the administration on the defense.
Nevertheless, Trump derided the “fake media” only once, and he never mentioned former Trump aide Steve Bannon, whose recent comments about the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., quoted in the book, have come under fire.
Trump, who was introduced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, used the bulk of his speech trumpeting the impact from the recently enacted Republican tax legislation on the nation’s farmers and agriculture industry.
“Under this new law, the typical family of four earning $75,000 will see an income tax cut of more than $2,000 — slashing their tax bill in half,” the president said.
Trump received enthusiastic applause after discussing changes to the estate tax, which he said was beneficial to farmers and small businesses. Although the farm bureau sought to entirely eliminate the estate tax, the final version of the tax bill kept it intact while reducing the number of people who pay it.
Trump noted the tax legislation will allow farmers to deduct the entire cost of new equipment in the first year of their investment, an effort the farm bureau had pushed.
“In every decision we make, we are honoring America’s proud farming legacy,” Trump said.
The executive order — which Trump signed at a table on stage flanked by most of Tennessee’s Republican congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Haslam — declares the executive branch will “use all viable tools” to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable and reliable broadband connectivity in rural America.
It goes on to say executive departments “should seek to reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services, and more efficiently employ government resources.”
“Those towers are going to go up and you’re going to have great, great broadband,” Trump said, holding up the official order for the audience to see.
Under a separate memo signed by the president — in addition to the executive order — Trump also is requiring U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to develop a plan to support rural broadband deployment.
Trump’s executive order does not appear to allocate any financial resources to the broadband effort — an area that has also been a priority of Haslam, who shepherded broadband legislation through the state legislature last year.
Although some farmers were hoping the president would discuss key industry issues, Trump’s speech contained little in terms of substance on the expiring Farm Bill — the omnibus legislation that governs food and agriculture programs — the North American Free Trade Agreement and immigrant workers.
Trump did vow to seek a farm bill that includes crop insurance subsidies, a key for the nation’s farmers.
“Oh are you happy you voted for me,” he said as the audience laughed. “You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.”
Several times, Trump proudly discussed his administration’s cuts of federal regulations, which he said has burdened businesses and farmers for too long.
He accused Democrats of wanting to raise taxes and said his opponent during last year’s presidential election would have been bad for farmers.
In a statement prior to Trump’s arrival to Nashville, Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini pointed to the rising number of rural hospitals that have closed in the Volunteer State, which she blamed on the Republican-led state legislature’s refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars. She also slammed Republican efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, which she said would include “massive cuts” to Medicaid.
“This isn’t just a healthcare issue,” she said. “People in rural communities are struggling to keep a roof over their head and buy food for their families because there are no jobs available that can sustain a family. Businesses will not go to communities that don’t have a hospital.”
‘Farm country is God’s country,’ Trump says
The executive order coincides with the release of recommendations from a task force established last year that seeks to make several improvements to the country’s rural areas.
The panel’s recommendations include measures seeking to enhance broadband access, improving quality of life, generate a reliable workforce, advance technological innovations and economic development.
Trump’s widespread support in the nation’s rural counties enabled him to pull off his election victory upset over Democrat Hillary Clinton last year. His rural base has remained committed to the president as his poll ratings have plunged nationally.
Trump became the first president to address the American Farm Bureau Federation since George H. W. Bush in 1992, and said he plans to do it again next year for the organization’s 100th annual convention.
His visit to Nashville was his second since taking office last year, after staging a March campaign rally at Municipal Auditorium and visiting The Hermitage, the historic Nashville home of President Andrew Jackson.
Trump closed his remarks by paying tribute to Jackson and his role in the Battle of New Orleans. Trump paraphrased a quote from Jackson, calling farmers the “basis of society and true friends of liberty.” Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, is a hero of Trump, who has drawn from Jackson’s populist politics.
“Farm country is God’s country,” Trump said in his concluding remarks, receiving one final standing ovation.
For his trip Monday, Trump was joined on Air Force One by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and U.S. Reps. Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, Phil Roe, David Kustoff and Chuck Fleischmann, all Tennessee Republicans. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas was also on board.
Corker, who has been in a public spat with the president for weeks, trailed Trump down the stairs of Air Force One after arriving in Nashville. Haslam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, all Republicans, were among the dignitaries who greeted Trump at the airport.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, a Democrat, was not at the airport to greet Trump. A spokesman cited “scheduling conflicts.”
Ahead of Trump’s visit, protesters and supporters clashed at a site near Opryland, where spectators gathered.
At one point, two Trump supporters approached a man in all black carrying an Antifa flag representing the far-left anti-fascist group. After they traded insults, one of the Trump supporters held out a lighter — he later said he thought about burning the flag.
A different Trump supporter raised his hand in a Nazi salute before walking away.
Minutes later, another man walked up and knocked a protest sign to the ground. The man picked up a rock and paused. He eventually walked away.
Police officers standing nearby on did not intervene during either altercation.
The majority of the rain-soaked supporters and protesters were peaceful,
Trump departed Nashville at 4:17 p.m. en route to Atlanta to attend the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia. He was to then return to the White House.
Jason Gonzales, Natalie Allison and Anita Wadhwani of The Tennessean and David Jackson of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
The Tennessean Published 12:21 p.m. CT Jan. 8, 2018 | Updated 6:56 p.m. CT Jan. 8, 2018
Photo: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean