Trump claims victory, but the U.S.-Mexico pact is a compromise, and tentative

President Trump with First Lady Melania Trump as they return to the White House from Europe.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

This is not the first time that President 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 March, 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 1 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 starting Monday posed a far more credible threat, and his tweet Friday night that the tariffs were “indefinitely suspended” arguably marked a climb down as much as a victory, at least as far as blocking immigration.


The two nations signed an agreement that even Trump acknowledged was based partly on Mexico’s promises to take tougher action, but with few clear requirements.

“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 senior 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 whether the scramble represented Trump bluster or wily deal-making.

If historical trends are any guide, the recent migrant influx — last month U.S. officials detained 133,000 people at the southern border, more than twice as many as in December — is likely to fall in coming weeks as searing summer heat kicks in.

That will give Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador room to claim their efforts have succeeded, at least for the short term — a critical issue for Trump as he heads into his reelection campaign with his anti-immigration battle as a campaign war cry.

The negotiations were tense at times, officials and participants said, but both sides worked steadily in a race to fine-tune an acceptable compromise before Trump returned to Washington.

Hanging over their heads was the recognition that tariffs cut both ways, and sharply higher prices — the tariffs were supposed to top out at 25% in October — would ripple through both economies.

While in Britain, France and Ireland, 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.

The final countdown began Wednesday, when Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and his delegation first arrived at the White House for talks.

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. But they found Mexican officials eager to strike a deal to prevent that.

“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, recalled in an interview Saturday.

“And they accepted that and they came forward with goodwill 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 Lopez Obrador’s government would fulfill its promises to deploy thousands of National Guard troops to help with immigration enforcement, especially near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, and take other measures to stop migrants from reaching the United States.

The U.S. side pushed 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 Trump 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 as the two sides hammered out final wording and two key points.

Both sides recognized the distinct and problematic nature of the current surge in migration because it involves so many families and asylum seekers.

Mexico wanted the agreement to address development needs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where poverty and violence are helping drive the northern exodus. U.S. negotiators were reluctant to agree since Trump recently cut aid to Central America.

Ultimately, the agreement contained a passage decrying 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 U.S. officials can return asylum applicants to Mexico to await the resolution of their cases in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take months or longer.

Mexican officials were concerned that it would appear they were relinquishing sovereignty. They relented when language describing the measure was softened.

The controversial practice, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, was created this year, and the agreement will expand it, as the U.S. side wanted. That victory may be temporary since the practice has been challenged in U.S. courts, and some judges have indicated it may not be legal.

From the start, the White House refused to specify — at least in public — what would satisfy Trump in terms of border enforcement and apprehensions.

“At the end of the day, the measurement is not going to be a policy,” Short said. “The measurement is going to be, do the numbers come down at the border.”

Several agenda items, such as beefing up border law enforcement, had been settled months ago, one official said, and thus were easy to add to the deal.

Final agreement was reached late Friday afternoon. Pompeo and Pence telephoned Trump as he flew home on Air Force One and filled him in.

Trump conducted a conference call with senior staff members, around 6:30 or 6:45 that night. At 8:31 p.m., Trump tweeted that he had suspended the tariffs and that Mexico had agreed to “greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration.”

Across town at the State Department, Ebrard, the Mexican foreign secretary, emerged bleary-eyed to describe the deal to journalists. He said he thought both the 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.

The fine print suggests the deal may not be final, since it states that if Mexico’s actions “do not have the expected results,” additional measures may be taken. It said talks would continue and other steps could be announced within 90 days.

The White House had said all week that Trump was dead serious about the tariffs he announced on May 30. But he faced mounting pressure from Senate Republicans and GOP governors, especially in Texas and other border states, to avoid what many saw as a looming diplomatic and economic crisis.

While Trump 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. Moreover, a trade war could ruin chances for passage of the new trade pact with Mexico and Canada, a White House priority.

After a lunch with administration officials last week, Senate Republicans made clear that they would oppose the tariffs and even dangled the notion that they could have the votes to override a veto.

Trump’s negotiators clearly had that congressional show of force in mind.

The U.S. team was led by Pence, a longtime free trade advocate and former House member who retains deep ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill, and by Pompeo, who served in the House even more recently.

Sen. Rob Portman, whose home state of Ohio would have suffered in a trade war, commended Trump for working with the Mexican government.

“This agreement avoids tariffs going up on both sides, which would hurt our economy,” he said in a statement.

Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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