Trump's victory in Mexico tariff, immigration talks a hollow one
Washington — This is not the first time that President Donald Trump, frustrated by his inability to curb a surge of migration from Central America, has threatened Mexico with drastic punishment only to back down.
In April, he vowed to close all or large parts of the southwest border to stop people and drugs heading north, an implausible ultimatum given the nearly one million legal crossings and billions of dollars of two-way trade every day. Days later he relented, claiming Mexico had stepped up its help.
Trump's plan to impose escalating tariffs on Mexico was a more credible threat, but his announcement late Friday to "indefinitely suspend" the import taxes arguably produced a hollow victory. The two nations signed an agreement that even the president acknowledged was based partly on Mexico's promises to take tougher action, but with few specifics.
"Mexico will try very hard, and if they do that, this will be a very successful agreement for both the United States and Mexico!" Trump tweeted Saturday.
The high drama of the last week, when high-level Mexican officials rushed to Washington for three days of intense closed-door talks and then inked a deal hours after Trump returned from Europe, left many in Congress and elsewhere wondering if the scramble represented Trump bluster, or wily deal-making.
The negotiations were tense at times, participants said, but both sides worked steadily in an effort to fine tune an acceptable compromise before Trump landed back in Washington. Hanging over their heads was the recognition that tariffs cut both ways, and a crippling trade war would ripple through both economies.
While Trump has insisted that Mexico would bear the brunt of escalating tariffs, most U.S. business leaders saw a potential disaster for the auto industry, agriculture and numerous other industries.
Trump all along insisted he was serious about tariffs, even as opposition from Senate Republicans and GOP governors, especially in Texas and other border states, mounted.
When not glad-handing with Queen Elizabeth II in London and nonagenarian survivors of D-day in France, Trump spent jet-lagged nights in telephone contact with his negotiators at the White House or seventh-floor offices at the State Department: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
After talks with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and his delegation began at the White House on Wednesday, some administration officials were certain Trump would impose at least the first tranche of 5% tariffs, if only to send a message to Mexico that he was not bluffing this time.
"There was a sense of 'Let's go through the numbers because we're all on the same page about the number of apprehensions (of migrants on the border) in May and what the trajectory was and why we think that's a crisis,'" Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, said in an interview Saturday, recalling the first round of talks.
"And they accepted that and they came forward with good will to say 'Here are some things we can do now.' Our tone was 'That's good, thank you, but not nearly enough.'"
Trump had to be convinced that the Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government would carry through with its promises to deploy thousands of national guard troops to its border with Guatemala and take other measures to stop migrants from reaching the United States.
The Trump administration also wanted Mexico to agree to being declared a "safe third nation," which would require arriving Central Americans or other refugees to apply for asylum in Mexico without traveling on to the United States. Mexico adamantly refused, and the administration ultimately gave in although both sides agreed to continue discussing that and other measures to overhaul asylum policy.
The talks dragged on for 10 hours Friday in disagreement over wording and two key points. Both sides recognized the distinct and problematic nature of the current migration surge because it involves so many families and asylum-seekers. More than 100,000 people crossed the U.S. border and sought asylum last month alone.
Mexico, however, wanted to include in the agreement language that would address development in Central America, which it sees as root causes of the migration. The administration was reluctant to agree; Trump earlier this year cut aid to the most troubled parts of Central America. Ultimately, the deal contained a passage on humanitarian conditions in the region, without specifying solutions.
The other sticking point was a U.S. demand to expand the number of border crossing points through which the U.S. can return asylum applicants to Mexico to await the resolution of their cases.
Mexican officials were concerned that it would appear they were relinquishing sovereignty. They finally relented when the description of measure was softened. The practice, called Remain in Mexico, already existed but the agreement will expand it.
Ebrard, emerging bleary-eyed Friday night from the State Department when negotiations had concluded, stressed the Central America aid portion and said he thought both U.S. and Mexico should be satisfied.
"I think it's a fair balance because they had more drastic measures and proposals at the start, and we reached some middle point," Ebrard said.