Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue joined me this morning:
HH: So pleased to welcome to the program a member of the cabinet of the United States, the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. Governor Perdue, welcome, it’s great to have you with us. I imagine that you will be accompanying the President to the Farm Bureau speech in Nashville today and then to the national college football championship tonight? Am I right about that?
SP: Good morning, Hugh. You’ve got it correct, absolutely. I’m here at the National Farm Bureau, and then on to Atlanta, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
HH: Now I’ve got to ask you, is Scott Pruitt even talking to you since your Bulldogs beat his Sooners last week?
SP: I haven’t had a chance to talk to Scott. You know, I’m not kind of a rub it in kind of guy, so we had a great game. But Scott and I are still great friends.
HH: All right. Now I don’t know if you were a part of the team up at the Camp David this weekend. I don’t think you were. I know you’re going to be talking agriculture today, and I want to review that. But before I do that, the Department of Agriculture actually has jurisdiction over Mount St. Helens, which has had 40 earthquakes in the last few days, maybe a week and a half. Are you monitoring that situation, Mr. Secretary?
SP: Well, our Forest Service is, but we’re stopping all those volcanos.
HH: That’s going to be easier than stopping the Alabama offense tonight, I think, Mr. Secretary. Are you an optimist about your Bulldogs tonight?
SP: I am. I think the Dawgs are going to do it. I think if the team that beat Oklahoma shows up, I think we can do it.
HH: All right, let get to some serious stuff. Have you read the Michael Wolff book?
SP: I have not. Don’t plan to.
HH: And why not?
SP: I don’t usually read a lot of fiction.
HH: (laughing) Okay. There is an image of the President much in the media now that he is not stable, not fit to be president, and not qualified by temperament to do so. Your reaction?
SP: I think that’s why I characterized the book as fiction. If you begin with that premise, it’s absolutely untrue and very uncharacteristic of the President. He’s focused, he’s determined, he’s a business guy. He asks tough questions, and expects solid answers.
HH: He tweeted yesterday that he’s a genius, and he’s like really smart. Do you agree with those assessments?
SP: well, I think politically, if you defeat 16 opponents, some with well-entrenched in the Republican establishment, when you defeat the Clinton dynasty, I think some would characterize that as political genius.
HH: Now what about really smart?
SP: I think he is really smart. He’s instinctive. He is, he has a unique, inherent gift of just being able to figure stuff out. It’s like street smarts.
HH: So how do we explain the division between people like you who work with him firsthand, and I’ve heard Scott Pruitt, and I’ve heard Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton say the same thing, and a media vision of him which is as distant from that as I am from being a Georgia fan? I’m from Ohio State, and so I, from Ohio, and so I think it’s a shocking crime that they’re not playing Georgia tonight.
SP: I understand. Well, I think again, I don’t know what Wolff’s motives were. I don’t know, it looked like he was slinking around the White House trying to dig up dirt when people didn’t realize they were talking to him or who he was. I don’t know what his motivation was. All I know is the characterization that he has for the President in his book is not reflective of the man that I’ve seen, the man I’ve spoken to, and discussed policy with face to face.
HH: All right, now let me ask you about Steve Bannon, who is quoted in the book, and about whom there are tapes. And so I’m not reading the book, because I don’t drink polluted water. And I know that there are falsehoods in there. Tony Blair has denounced some. There’s so many errors, in fact, that I’m just not going to waste my time with a book that I can’t trust anything, except the Bannon quotes which are on tape. What would motivate Steve? Do you know Steve Bannon, Secretary Perdue?
SP: I know Steve Bannon. I don’t know Steve Bannon very well. I’ve not spent a lot of time around him. So I don’t know really what happened with those quotes. I don’t know what frame of mind Steve was in when those quotes were taken, if they are absolutely accurate. You say they’re on tape. I don’t know that. But it seems like Bannon himself is trying to distance himself from some of the quotes that he had in the book.
HH: All right, can I turn to policy now, because I’ve got your point on that. I want to go to the Department of the Agriculture. And in 1917, I’ve got a whole long list of big, big deals – the tax bill, the regulatory rollback, Neil Gorsuch, 12 judges, but people weren’t looking. Beef, American beef, got into China after a 13 year block. American rice got into China for the first time. American citrus got into the EU, gaining the approval from, of those regulators. Distilled dry grains got into Vietnam. U.S. chipping potatoes got into Japan. South Korea’s ban on the imports of U.S. poultry ended. You’re a free trader, Sonny Perdue.
SP: Yeah, and I think our commitment to the American farmer may grow it and grow it very well. If they grow it, it’s our obligation to help them sell it.
HH: And so who does all those negotiations to open up those markets for American agricultural products?
SP: Well, it’s a combination of people. Obviously, we’re the initial sales force. As you know, our official negotiator is the U.S. Trade Ambassador, Bob Lighthizer. But they do the official legal documents, but we call on these countries, and try to make sure that they change their provisions. We work with their agricultural ministers. We work with their ambassadors. And it’s a group effort.
HH: All right, now I want to finish by talking about the fires and the hurricanes. USDA has had a lot to do with feeding people, which is part of the Department of Agriculture in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Are you doing as good a job of feeding people on Puerto Rico as you did in Florida and Texas?
SP: I believe that we are. The amount of food that we distributed in Puerto Rico was massive, obviously. There’s always needs, and will you reach every last person? Maybe not, but the effort that we had there, FEMA actually told us that it was the best coordinated effort they’d ever seen between the Department of Agriculture and the FEMA.
HH: All right. Now fires, I used to be a Californian. I’m a Virginian now, but I follow it very closely. The worst fire season on record, according to the USDA’s Forest Service. He’s had to spend $3 billion dollars almost fighting fires across the nation, many of them in my old home state. Why, is this climate change? Is this forest mismanagement? Is it a combination of both?
SP: Well, Hugh, unfortunately, it’s a lack of forest management over the years, precluded by environmentalists who won’t allow you to go in and to take the fuel off the ground, will not allow you to harvest the trees that need to be thinned for insect and fires. So it’s been mismanaged, but often because of litigation. We’ve kind of hunkered down and not done the things that we knew how to do, as well as the funding situation. We’ve had to spend so much money on fire funding, that we haven’t been able to do the forest management. I hope both of those things get cured in legislation that’s currently before Congress, both forest management and fire funding.
HH: I’ll conclude by talking about appointees. I wrote a piece for the Post last week that I hope Leader McConnell invokes the Reid Rule to end these slowdown tactics in the Senate. Do you have your political appointees at the Department of Agriculture that you need?
SP: Absolutely not. We’ve got Bill Northey, who is from Iowa, was heading up our undersecretary for food production and farm production and conservation. We need him very badly. He’s passed the committee. We’ve got about three other undersecretaries that we need. So I hope you’ll stay on that topic. We need Congress to move very quickly on expediting our political appointees at the undersecretary level.
HH: When you call Leader McConnell, like I have talked to him about Rick Grenell, and I’ve talked to other people, he’s supposed to be our ambassador to Germany. He always responds judges come first, and I agree with him on that. But is, do you expect them to change the rules of the Senate, you know, obviously, David Perdue could tell you about this, so that we’ll get rid of this 30 hour of debate per nominee rule that the Democrats are using for the four corners offense, which you and I are old enough to remember watching?
SP: Hugh, if we don’t do that, this government will become dysfunctional in the future. We’re already seeing some of that when a year after a president’s been inaugurated, he doesn’t have this political team in place. And that’s a serious transition issue in our government, and it’ll only get worse if we allow it to continue to happen.
HH: Well, safe travel today, Secretary Perdue, and good luck to the Bulldogs, because they are playing an illegitimate entry into the league. It should be the Buckeyes tonight, but good luck to the Bulldogs tonight.
SP: Okay, Hugh, thank you. Go Dawgs.
HH: Go Dawgs. I knew he was going to say that. By the way, there’s an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, that I wanted to get to. I like Sonny Perdue. He’s a lot of fun to talk to.
End of interview.