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PolitiFact: Donald Trump distorts U.S.-Japan trade

The president’s claim came during a stop at a Pennsylvania chemical plant.
Winter wheat is seen matured in a 140-acre field at the AgriReNew farm in Stockton, Iowa, on July 7, 2017. [ANDY ABEYTA, QUAD-CITY TIMES | ZUMAPRESS.com]
Published Aug. 22

President Donald Trump visited a Pennsylvania chemical plant to talk about energy and manufacturing. He touted the economic improvements on his watch, from growing steel production to rising energy sales. Trump launched into an anecdote of sorts that painted a picture of a turnaround in trade with Japan.

"I told Prime Minister Abe — great guy — I said, ‘Listen, we have a massive deficit with Japan.’ They send thousands and thousands — millions — of cars. We send them wheat. Wheat. That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat. They do it because they want us to at least feel that we’re okay. You know, they do it to make us feel good.

"But the deficit is massive, which is changing rapidly. But what they're doing is, they're buying a lot of our stuff, including our military equipment."

We’ll check the accuracy of each main point.

“They send thousands and thousands — millions — of cars.”

Trump inflates the total, but not by much. The U.S. Trade Administration says Japan sent about 1.7 million new cars and light trucks to the United States in 2018.

“We send them wheat.”

Well, the United States does export wheat to Japan, but Trump makes it sound as though this is a large share of U.S.-Japan trade. It isn’t.

In 2018, wheat represented less than 1% of total U.S. sales to Japan. Corn brought in many more dollars — $2.8 billion compared to $0.7 billion from wheat.

The top ranking U.S. product (based on dollar value) was civilian aircraft, engines, equipment, and parts, which produced $5.6 billion in sales. Industrial machines and liquified natural gas came in second and third, each with about $4.5 billion in sales.

Wheat ranked 32nd.

With the exception of liquefied natural gas sales, which took off in 2016, the sales numbers for aircraft, industrial machinery and other leading products have been fairly steady over time.

Trump also singled out sales of military equipment. All told, it accounted for about 1.8% of total sales to Japan. No type of military product ranked higher than 26th.

“The deficit is massive, which is changing rapidly.”

The overall trade deficit with Japan in goods and services has stayed relatively level at about $57 billion a year since 2016. But not only is it not changing quickly, it rose slightly each year.

The most recent data runs through the first quarter of 2019. Comparing just the first quarters in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 shows a rise from $13.7 billion in 2016 to $15.5 billion in 2019.

We reached out to the White House and they had no comment.

Our ruling

Trump talked about U.S.-Japan trade in terms of Americans buying Japanese cars while the Japanese bought American wheat. He also said the trade deficit is changing rapidly.

Trump distorted the actual trade relations in many ways. While he was reasonably correct on the scale of cars imported to the United States, he cast wheat as a major part of U.S.-Japan trade. It accounts for less than 1% of sales. Trump sidestepped the top-ranking items of civilian aircraft and related goods, and industrial machinery.

The numbers also undercut his implication that the trade deficit is changing rapidly for the better. It has held steady, although getting a bit worse each year.

Trump was close on the car and truck imports, but missed the mark in every other respect. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Read more rulings at PolitiFact.com.

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