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Trump signs ‘Buy American, Hire American’ executive order, promising to fight for American workers

He railed on NAFTA and the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and promised to "make sure that more products are stamped with those wonderful words: 'Made in the USA.'" (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

KENOSHA, Wis. -- President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that would tighten rules that award visas to skilled foreign workers and directs the federal government to enforce rules that bar foreign contractors from bidding on federal projects.

The order is a first effort to promote a “Buy American, Hire American” agenda, a key promise Trump made during the campaign.

Speaking at the headquarters of Wisconsin-based toolmaker Snap-on, Trump said that the order “declares that the policy of our government is to aggressively promote and use American-made goods and to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job.”

“We're going to do everything in our power to make sure more products are stamped with those wonderful words 'Made in the USA,' " Trump said. “For too long we’ve watched as our factories have been closed and our jobs have been sent to faraway lands.”

The return to Wisconsin is a first for Trump, who narrowly won the state by about 27,000 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But the victory punctured a decades-long history of Rust Belt states remaining solidly in the Democratic column.

During the campaign, Trump railed against free-trade deals, outsourcing of U.S. jobs and the death of American manufacturing in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The message seemed to resonate more than expected with white, blue-collar workers who have for years been drifting away from the Democratic Party.

“The optimism in this room is the same incredible spirit that is sweeping across the country, and it's even greater than that great day in November when I won the state of Wisconsin and we won the presidency,” Trump said.

With the signing of this executive order, senior administration officials said Monday during a briefing with reporters that the White House is moving forward with an agenda that cuts across party lines. Labor unions, which typically lean Democratic, have long complained about free-trade pacts that they say leave American workers behind, and the “Buy American, Hire American” mantra is one that both parties are eager to support.

“Those are two very specific policy positions that have long been advocated by many groups that represent workers in our country in particular by many labor unions and labor groups in our country,” one senior administration official said.

The executive order directs federal agencies to crack down on fraud and abuse in the H-1B visa program, which is heavily used by technology companies. And it directs the federal government to fully enforce federal guidelines prioritizing the use of American firms and goods in federal projects.

Both changes are aimed at discouraging the use of foreign labor, which the administration says displaces American workers and reduces wages. It also aims to give a boost to U.S. steel mills and steelworkers.

While Trump made buying American made products and hiring American workers a theme of his campaign, his business practices often contradicted his political rhetoric. Parts of his clothing line were manufactured abroad and he hired foreign workers at many of his properties.

[The many ways in which Trump’s ‘buy American’ mantra is hypocritical]

The trip comes as Trump is seeking to refocus his administration on economic policy, even while other priorities like health care and tax reform have stalled.

Trump boasted that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days” that his has, citing the use of military action and efforts to slash regulations, enforce immigration laws and bolster law enforcement.

But critics say that the order is a half measure that masks Trump's inability to accomplish big agenda items.

“President Trump has just repeatedly failed to deliver on the promises he’s made to American workers during the campaign,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “He hasn’t stood up to China, who has robbed millions of Americans of jobs over the last several decades, has been a benefactor of loopholes in our buy America laws.”

“He hasn’t even tried to move legislation that would end tax breaks for companies who ship jobs overseas, something we Democrats have been advocating for years,” he added.

Trump promised that he would “soon” release the details of his administration's tax plan and emphasized that a health-care system overhaul still needed to be accomplished.

“We have to get the health care taken care of,” Trump said.

The president also expressed some frustration with the pace of other changes he had hoped to make, including renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he had sharply criticized during the campaign.

He called the delays “ridiculous” and promised to fight for a fairer deal for American workers and companies.

“We are going to make very big changes, or we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all,” Trump said. “We cannot continue like this.”