Sonny Perdue is a rarity: A Trump Cabinet member who went the distance

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a roundtable with farmers on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Caption
U.S. President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a roundtable with farmers on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: Olivier Douliery

Credit: Olivier Douliery

Georgia’s farmer in Washington pushed hard on deregulation, trade

Claxton, Ga. -- Far from the upheaval in Washington, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue spent Thursday amid cotton fields and pine trees, touting a $4.5 million federal grant to bring high speed internet to this rural area between Savannah and Vidalia.

He made his way around a circle of about 40 masked Georgians at Spring Hollow Farm, sharing elbow or fist bumps and a few words with each. He took the dais, drawing laughs after telling a government employee who listed his accomplishments, “Thank you Joyce, that was very nice considering I won’t be signing your check in the future.”

After the ceremony, he leaned on the hood of his government-issue black Suburban to chat with a local businessman as if he had all the time in the world.

Caption
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Jan. 7, 2021 about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Jan. 7, 2021 about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Caption
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Jan. 7, 2021 about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

After four years of White House tumult, few cabinet secretaries and top aides who joined the Trump administration in 2017 remain in their jobs.

Perdue, Trump’s first and only agriculture secretary, is a notable exception. The former two-term Georgia governor has kept his cabinet post until the end, maintaining a close relationship with his mercurial boss while Trump cycled through dozens of other advisers.

As the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency descended into chaos after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent Joe Biden from taking office, and some cabinet officials resigned in protest, it seems likely Perdue will be with him until the end.

Perdue gets high marks from local farmers for being a powerful advocate in Washington. Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry, with an estimated $75 billion impact on the state’s economy, from peanuts to broiler chickens and pecans to cotton. Perdue grew up driving a watermelon wagon on a row-crop farm in middle Georgia.

“I think he’s got a farmer’s heart and he knows the challenges the growers deal with,” said Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Perdue often referred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its roughly $140 billion-a-year budget as a business, and to farmers as his customers. He also shared Trump’s deregulatory fervor, slashing environmental and labor rules, and some farmers fear Tom Vilsack, President-elect Biden’s pick for agriculture secretary, could usher in more regulations.

Caption
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue leaves his last official appearance at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 after speaking about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue leaves his last official appearance at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 after speaking about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Caption
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue leaves his last official appearance at an event at the Spring Hollow Farm in Claxton, Ga. on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 after speaking about bringing high speed internet to two rural Georgia counties. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

But the two fires that dominated much of Perdue’s time in Washington were largely out of his control: Trump’s trade wars that cut off huge export markets like China, and COVID-19, which made it harder for farmers to get their crops to customers.

Perdue’s hand-in-glove relationship with Trump, meanwhile, made him a polarizing figure when it came to policy. To his critics, Perdue was a yes man who muffled climate science studies, triggered an exodus of researchers and tried to kick low-income Americans off food stamps.

“He’ll be remembered again and again for sidelining science, playing political games,” said Karen Perry Stillerman of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

Perdue didn’t escape the ethics scandals that hit Trump’s cabinet. Last fall the federal Office of Special Counsel ruled Perdue violated the Hatch Act — which forbids government employees from campaigning on the job — after he appeared with Trump in North Carolina in August and promised continued help to farmers if they voted for the president.

Caption
Republican Senator from Georgia David Perdue (M) and his cousin, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (R), participate in a December rally at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport during the first day of early voting in the U.S. Senate runoff election in Atlanta.

Credit: EPA

Republican Senator from Georgia David Perdue (M) and his cousin, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (R), participate in a December rally at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport during the first day of early voting in the U.S. Senate runoff election in Atlanta.
Caption
Republican Senator from Georgia David Perdue (M) and his cousin, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (R), participate in a December rally at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport during the first day of early voting in the U.S. Senate runoff election in Atlanta.

Credit: EPA

Credit: EPA

This past week, the Perdue family’s political fortunes were shaken when David Perdue, Sonny’s first cousin, lost his U.S. Senate seat in Georgia’s runoff race against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. The cousins are close, helming a political machine that for years has been the envy of Georgia political circles. Sonny bunked with David when he was first being vetted to join Trump’s cabinet in 2017.

Sonny said he was in Georgia as the U.S. Capitol was overrun. He told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter he was “saddened” by Wednesday’s violence, but demurred Thursday when asked if Trump incited the crowds, saying he hadn’t read the president’s tweets. The same day, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned in protest over Trump’s role.

After Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20, Perdue said he’ll move back to Georgia and that he and his wife’s “primary constituency” will be their 14 grandchildren.

“We have a new president and we are going to bind together as Georgians, as Americans, and continue to make this country great,” said Perdue, who is 74 years old.

‘Sonny teaches me’

Trump told thousands of rapturous farmers in a New Orleans convention hall in 2019 who his go-to guy was when shaping farm policy.

“I know a lot about the farming world,” Trump told American Farm Bureau Federation members. “And, if I don’t, Sonny teaches me.”

Perdue was at his good ol’ boy best in crowds, often arriving in an RV. In his first 25 months on the job he visited all 50 states, touring nearly 100 farms and holding nearly 200 townhall discussions.

“While there are sectors of agriculture that don’t like certain administrative policies, I think his accessibility has been good out in the country,” said Dan Glickman, who served as former President Bill Clinton’s agriculture chief from 1995 to 2001 and briefly worked with Perdue at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

A longtime free trader, Perdue helped persuade Trump to not immediately withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement on one of his first days on the job. He knew the withdrawal would hurt farmers in regions that had heavily voted for Trump, and made his case by bringing a map to the White House and spreading it out.

“These are the people you are going to hurt,” Perdue said he told Trump.

He also used his personal clout to get Trump to endorse Brian Kemp as the Republican nominee for Georgia governor in 2018. “I did that for Sonny Perdue,” Trump would tell reporters, though Trump later rued that decision, sharply criticizing Kemp for not overturning the state’s November election results in his favor.

Perdue’s fingerprints were in lots of other places. He championed easing a clean water rule long maligned by Georgia farmers and land developers. He directed the Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews for applicants seeking logging, oil and gas, mineral extraction and grazing permits in national forests and grasslands. He reduced the number of USDA food safety inspectors stationed at pork plants, and allowed poultry and meat plants to run their slaughter lines at faster speeds.

Within days of being sworn in, he set his sights on one of the signature achievements of former first lady Michelle Obama: nutritional standards for school lunches requiring cafeterias to increase fruit and vegetable offerings while cutting sodium, refined grains and trans fats to address obesity.

Perdue relaxed those standards, criticizing them as a “nanny state” approach. “What kids were doing was throwing away those meals,” Perdue said in an interview Thursday. “It’s one of the best things I guess we did.”

His critics saw it differently. “Just because children would rather eat heavily salted, processed foods at school doesn’t mean they should,” said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group.

Perdue’s biggest task was defending Trump’s growing trade war with China — and reimbursing U.S. farmers for their export losses. The USDA ratcheted up direct federal payments to farmers from $11.5 billion in 2017 to a record $46.5 billion in 2020.

More than a third of Georgia farm income last year came from federal payments, according to the University of Georgia. A nonpartisan federal report showed Georgia farmers received the highest average payment of any state.

Perdue again defended Trump’s trade wars Thursday, saying China was manipulating American sellers. He acknowledged the disputes have been tough for farmers, but that farm prices are stabilizing and rising. “I think its because of the tariffs,” he said.

Mike Johanns, George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary, said Perdue dealt successfully with a generational farm crisis as exports to China dried up and COVID-19 disrupted immigrant workers and supply chains.

“I’d go so far to say if it wasn’t for Sonny, there would have been just a lot more desperate, financially strapped farmers and ranchers,” Johanns said.

Caption
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks to students and faculty at Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources on April 3, 2018. USDA/Lance Cheung.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks to students and faculty at Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources on April 3, 2018. USDA/Lance Cheung.
Caption
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks to students and faculty at Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources on April 3, 2018. USDA/Lance Cheung.

The USDA also created a program last year to buy $8.6 billion in vegetables, dairy, fruits and meats to give to food banks, helping both farmers and the hungry as restaurants, key customers for crops, closed their doors with the arrival of the coronavirus.

At the same time, Perdue continued trying to tighten work requirements for food stamps, saying he wanted to steer recipients to “self sufficiency and self reliance.” Those efforts were stymied in the courts, but not before triggering the ire of Democrats and anti-hunger groups as unemployment spiked.

Perdue also fought battles with scientists inside the USDA. Politico reported in 2018 the agency buried peer-reviewed research by its own scientists showing the effects of climate change on agriculture.

In what may be one of the most enduring parts of his legacy, Perdue decided the same year to relocate two USDA research branches from Washington to Kansas City. He argued the move would cut costs and bring government employees closer to farmers. Most quit — roughly two thirds, according to media reports — and led to a brain drain that some say could take years to fill.

“That’s real knowledge that was lost,” said Joe Glauber, senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute and a former USDA chief economist.

A ranking of the best federal agencies to work showed the Department of Agriculture 16th out of 17 large agencies in 2019. A bit less than 40% rated senior leadership effective.

Perdue said Thursday he was surprised by the number of workers who quit, but that the move would save the department $300 million over 15 years, and that it is making headway recruiting a new generation of scientists.