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Toledo — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump indicated Wednesday that he might soften his stance on how much of a tariff he would want to slap on Ford Motor Co. to penalize it for making vehicles in Mexico.

The New York businessman has criticized Ford for taking advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement to invest more than $4 billion in Mexican auto assembly and parts facilities and build mostly cars that would be sold in the United States. Under the 22-year-old U.S. trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, Ford doesn’t pay a tariff or import tax on vehicles it makes in Mexico and ships to America.

“It would be 35 percent, it may be 10 percent, it may be five percent, it may be 20 percent,” Trump said in an interview with The Detroit News before a campaign rally here.

“We determine what the tariff will be. But when companies leave Michigan or they leave Ohio and they go to Mexico and they think they’re going to sell product into our country with no tax, they’re wrong about that.”

A Ford spokeswoman sidestepped Trump’s comments, but found a trade issue where the company agrees with the real estate mogul.

“As a top U.S. exporter, we believe U.S. policy needs to address foreign currency manipulation,” Ford spokeswoman Christin Baker said late Wednesday. “There is bipartisan agreement by the two presidential candidates on this important trade issue.”

Trump made the comments on a day when he held a press conference in Florida and made separate campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Toledo, the bombastic billionaire hit his usual message about American economic decline.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke to The Detroit News before a campaign rally in Toledo about his plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and slap Ford Motor Co. with a tariff for building cars in Mexico. Chad Livengood, The Detroit News

In the interview with The News, Trump reiterated he would “pull out” of NAFTA if he can’t get a better deal for American workers.

“NAFTA has been a disaster for manufacturing,” he said. “It’s gone on too long, signed a long time ago and somebody should have renegotiated this a long time ago.”

Todd Filip, who works at an auto supply plant in Wauseon, Ohio, said Trump’s criticism of NAFTA as being a “disaster” for American workers conforms to the view he’s held for years.

“I’ve always believed that ever since (Bill) Clinton signed NAFTA,” Filip said after attending the Toledo rally. “I’m 47, and I’ve seen jobs leaving ever since.”

Trump packed the 8,000-seat Huntington Center and continued to decry NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement among 12 Pacific rim countries. The rally came on the heels last week of Trump’s nomination convention in Cleveland.

“Trans Pacific Partnership, it is a total disaster. “It will drain jobs out of this area … out of Toledo, Ohio like we’ve never seen before,” Trump told supporters at an event staged five miles away from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Jeep assembly plants.

Two weeks ago, Fiat Chrysler said it will invest about $700 million and add 700 workers at the Toledo Assembly Complex North plant for production of the next-generation Jeep Wrangler. An announcement about the future of the South plant at the complex will be made later, the company said.

Trump’s focus on trade deals comes as Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has continued to distance herself from trade agreements she once supported — a movement she made in the Democratic primaries against Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Top Clinton supporters sought to portray Clinton as being in line with Trump’s hard-line position on trade issues. United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams said this week that Clinton is now open to renegotiating NAFTA with Mexico and Canada.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime friend of the Clintons, set off a firestorm for the Clinton campaign when he said the former secretary of state would likely sign the TPP agreement after getting elected and making changes to the proposal, Politico.com reported.

“I worry that if we don’t do TPP, at some point China’s going to break the rules — but Hillary understands this,” McAuliffe told Politico.

The Virginia governor was forced to backtrack on the comment.

“Hillary is against TPP and she is always gonna stay against TPP. Let me be crystal clear about that,” McAuliffe said in a closed-door meeting at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, NBC News reported. The network obtained video of McAuliffe’s comments sitting along side AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Trump jumped on McAuliffe’s comments Wednesday morning during a televised press conference in Doral, Fla., before holding campaign rallies in Scranton, Pa., and Toledo.

“She lied about TPP. She was for TPP, she saw me on television knocking the hell out of it because it’s a horror show, it’s going to kill all our jobs, it’s going to be almost as bad as NAFTA,” Trump told reporters.

He said McAuliffe’s original comments were believable. “There is nobody, including her own husband, closer to Hillary Clinton than Terry McAuliffe.”

In The News’ interview in Toledo, Trump predicted Ford and other companies would reverse course on moving production to Mexico for lower-wage labor once his proposed tariff is enacted.

“And by the way, if we charge them a tax, they’re never going to leave,” Trump told The News.

Trump said the tariff would sail through Congress.

“We’ll get it through very easily, believe me,” he said. “Everyone agrees. … Our companies are leaving our country and we’re tired of it. When this all takes, it’s going to happen and it’s going to be great for America.”

In May, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. defended NAFTA, arguing it has allowed Ford to “build our business on both sides of the border.” About 80 percent of Ford’s vehicles are assembled inside the U.S., but the automaker has used Mexico plants to increase the profitability of its small cars in a country with cheaper production costs than in the United States.

“Our U.S. manufacturing business has grown, and our Mexican manufacturing business has grown,” Ford said. “We think it has been a good deal.”

Trump said he’s got a “whole list” of demands for America’s trading partners, but he did not disclose them in the brief interview.

“What we’re going to do is very strongly say we’re going to renegotiate or we’re going to pull out,” Trump told The News.

Trump supporters attending the Toledo rally said they like the real estate mogul’s frank approach to getting tough with America’s trading partners.

“In order to get this country back in shape, we need a businessman, we don’t need a politician,” said Craig Sennett, a 48-year-old information technology worker from Toledo.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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