Trump faces political risks in fight over GM plant

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President Trump is facing a politically risky fight as he looks to keep a General Motors factory in Ohio open and fulfill his promises of reviving the U.S. auto industry.

Trump in recent days has stepped up pressure on GM and United Auto Workers to reach a deal to reopen the company’s assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and safeguard its 1,636 jobs.

But it poses a tough challenge for the president in a battleground state he won in 2016 and which will be crucial to his reelection hopes.


Auto industry watchers say it will be a daunting task.

“I honestly don’t know if the plant can be reopened,” said David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar research firm. Whiston said that the impact of the Lordstown closure “would likely be severe to catastrophic.”

GM announced the Monday after Thanksgiving that it would cease production at five auto assembly and parts plants, laying off up to 15,000 workers across the U.S. and Canada.

The company defended the plan, saying the cuts would allow GM to pivot toward more popular, energy efficient and autonomous vehicles. While the plan affected several states Trump won in 2016, the president focused his attention on the facility in Lordstown, which produced Chevrolet Cruze sedans until it churned out its final car last week.

For Trump, the fight is also a personal one. He pledged during his 2016 campaign and in office that he’d spur a wave of industrial expansion, including in automobile production.

Trump said at a July 2017 campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio — less than 20 miles from the Lordstown plant — that factory jobs are “all coming back” to the state.

“Don’t move, don’t sell your house,” Trump said.

Now, more than 1,600 of those workers must decide whether to stay or find work elsewhere as they wait for negotiations over the future of the Lordstown plant to begin in September.


“The workers there have a very difficult choice,” Whiston said. “If they’re eligible they can take retirement, they can lose their job or they can relocate hundreds, if not thousands of miles.”

Trump again jumped into the fight over the future of the plant during the weekend.

“Because the economy is so good, General Motors must get their Lordstown, Ohio, plant open, maybe in a different form or with a new owner, FAST! Toyota is investing 13.5 $Billion in U.S., others likewise. G.M. MUST ACT QUICKLY. Time is of the essence!” he tweeted.

Trump also slammed union leaders, tweeting that the local United Auto Workers president, David Green, should “get his act together and produce.” “Stop complaining and get the job done,” Trump added.

On Sunday, Trump said that GM CEO Mary Barra had “blamed the UAW Union” for the plant’s closure, adding new fuel to the fire.

The stakes are high for Trump and both parties.

Midwestern industrial communities that backed Democrats for decades, including Lordstown’s Trumbull County, broke heavily for Trump in the 2016 election. Political watchers credited Trump’s promise to woo thousands of automaker jobs back to U.S. with helping him sweep through Ohio and sway voters in tight contests in Michigan and Wisconsin.

The fate of Lordstown and other plants could weigh heavily on his chances, with Democrats vowing to win over Midwestern states in 2020.

Democratic rivals wasted little time hitting him over his comments.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who launched his presidential bid last week, rebuked Trump while campaigning in Lordstown, blasting his comments on the union as “shameful.”

“I think we need to be listening to workers and those who represent their interests instead of attacking them at this moment,” he said.

Trump’s harsh words for the local union chief also threaten a rift with a potential ally.

United Auto Workers responded on Monday, tweeting: “Corporations close plants, workers don’t. Join us, @realDonaldTrump in leaving no stone unturned against @GM.”

But with the 2020 election approaching, experts warned that the problems bedeviling the Lordstown plant and the U.S. auto industry at large were not easy to fix.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said Trump might be able to pressure GM into briefly reopening the plant. But he warned that U.S. auto sales have likely peaked and that economic and demographic trends are cutting against the U.S. auto industry.

“Manufacturing has been on the defensive in the U.S. for the past 50 years, particularly in the industrial Midwest where costs have been higher,” Zandi said, citing lower labor costs abroad and increasing factory automation.

“He might get some tactical wins in the short run, but in the longer run ultimately the economics will win.”

GM is planning to lay off or relocate most of the factory’s employees, but there are hopes the automaker will revive the plant in some capacity. The Cruze was among several GM sedans that plummeted in popularity as Americans began favoring light trucks, such as pick-ups and SUVs.

Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, GM’s chief domestic rivals, have made similar cuts and changes.

Trump and Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) have asked Barra to produce another vehicle in Lordstown and keep the plant running.

The president has also suggested that GM could sell the plant to another automaker in the hope of protecting the Lordstown workforce.

“I want jobs to stay in the U.S.A. and want Lordstown (Ohio), in one of the best economies in our history, opened or sold to a company who will open it up fast!” Trump tweeted. “Car companies are all coming back to the U.S. So is everyone else.”

Whiston, though, said it is unlikely a foreign automaker will scoop up the Lordstown factory and that retooling the plant would cost GM hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Car models like the Cruze are just no longer in demand, and it’s possible GM isn’t willing to take the cost of retooling a plant to make a vehicle they’re already making in Mexico,” Whiston said.

The controversy is already opening Trump up to criticism from those who say he has not done enough to protect auto jobs.

Brown had praised Trump for vowing to try to keep the plant open. On Tuesday, though, the senator said Trump had been absent from the fight.

“I’ve been talking to the president about this. He finally woke up and acts like he wants to do something about this,” Brown, who ruled out a 2020 bid of his own earlier this year, said on CNN.

“I wish it had come earlier.”

Tags auto industry Beto O'Rourke Donald Trump General Motors GM Lordstown Rob Portman Sherrod Brown

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