Trump bails on 'Buy American' pledge to steel industry, Iron Range

Guilty as charged. The president's February promise that pipelines be built with American steel rings hollow after he exempted Keystone from his 'Buy American' rule.

Guilty as charged. The president's February promise that pipelines be built with American steel rings hollow after he exempted Keystone from his 'Buy American' rule.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Steel Chief Exec Mario Longhi were bro'ing it beautifully at a White House meeting late last month. America's leader had summoned a group of 24 manufacturing CEOs to talk about the nation's impending halcyon days.   

"We put you heavy into the pipeline business because we approved, as you know, the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota," Trump told Longhi. "But they have to buy — meaning, steel, so I'll say U.S. Steel — but steel made in this country and pipelines made in this country."

"One hundred percent, Mr. President," said Longhi. "We'll be there."

"By the way," Longhi would add, "when you come drive trucks, come up to Minnesota and our mines. You're going to see us running up there." 

I'll do that, Trump said.

But probably not soon.

It turns out that Trump's commitment to U.S. manufacturing is as thin as his hairline. In his first chance to back his promises, he's giving a pass on the whole "Buy American" thing to the Keystone XL Pipeline, 2,000 miles of conduit moving Alberta Tar Sands oil to the Texas Gulf.

The rationale: The project is already underway. The rule that "American steel" be used applies only to "new American pipelines," says Trump.   

It's hard to say what exactly Keystone's business might have meant for northern Minnesota's mining industry. But to Iron Rangers such as Doug Ellis, Trump's flip-flop means little.

Ellis has owned Virginia Surplus in downtown Virginia for more than a quarter century. He estimates the steel-toed boots he sells to mineworkers makes up 30 percent of his business.    

"The one thing about the mines are, and I've said this many times over the years is when they catch a cold, we all catch pneumonia.… And right now, I'd say as far as the health of mining here, is a seven out of ten.

"The mines are working, for the most part, at full capacity. [One of the mines] just started up again and that's great news. That puts another 300 or so people back to work." 

Ellis considers himself an equal opportunity bigot when it comes to politicians. He's unmoved by Trump's recent one-eighty.

"I don't trust politicians, ever, on either side. I don't think anybody should," he says. "I know one thing: the people here up in this area, we are survivors. There's no two ways about it. We're a tough bunch and that doesn't change no matter what politicians say or don't say."

Laura Holter was employed at a mining facility outside of Chisholm. In May 2015 she was among the casualties of a massive layoff. Holter went back to school to study business. She'll graduate in May from Mesabi Range College.    

"My longtime boyfriend, you can call him my husband, still works at Inland Steel," Holter says. "It seems to me the industry is coming back strong. People are being called back to work. The morale, the atmosphere, there's a positivity in our small local communities."

Holter isn't the political agnostic like fellow Iron Ranger Ellis.

"What the president does affects every much what goes on up here," she says. "I don't know if [the 'Buy American' rule] would have affected us directly. Would we have appreciated it? Of course. We would prefer people buy American made everything."