Faced with stiff opposition from political allies over a potentially costly trade war with a major partner, President Trump on Wednesday again threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexico, but also hinted at a possible route to back down.
Mexican officials, in a high-level meeting at the White House that lasted about two hours, offered a package of steps they were taking to meet Trump’s demands that they stem the flow of Central American migrants. They noted, however, that the measures, such as tougher checkpoints and more deportations, have been in place for months. The talks are scheduled to resume Thursday.
It was not clear, however, if the last-minute talks and warnings would be sufficient to stave off Monday’s scheduled tariff hike.
“Progress is being made. But not nearly enough!” Trump said on Twitter after the White House meeting ended.
Earlier, speaking to reporters during a visit to Ireland, Trump said he believed that Mexico “wants to make a deal.”
“The drugs that are coming in, the people that are coming in unchecked, they’re swamping our border,” Trump said. “Mexico can stop it. … And I think they will stop it.”
But if Mexico doesn’t “step up,” he said, “the tariffs go on.”
Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the United States who now works as a consultant in Washington, said he expects to see the tariffs take effect Monday, although they might only remain in place briefly.
“My sense with this president is he wants to be able to prove he has slapped on tariffs, even if for just 48 hours, to be able to say he did it,” he said.
The White House meeting was chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and held at the urging of the Mexican government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who dispatched his foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, to Washington after Trump threatened to hit Mexican imports with tariffs starting Monday.
The Mexican delegation grew to include several Cabinet members, among them the secretaries of finance, agriculture, defense and navy, reflecting alarm in the Lopez Obrador government, already struggling with a stagnant economy.
Afterward, Ebrard described the talks as “respectful.”
“We could explain our position, they theirs, and nothing was rejected” out of hand, he said. “The important thing is there is a willingness to move more closely toward an understanding.”
Immigration flows have grown too high, and “it cannot go on as it is,” he added.
Trump has come under considerable pressure from fellow Republicans and from business leaders in agriculture, auto manufacturing and other economic sectors that generally have supported him, all warning of the dangers of imposing tariffs on a trading partner as large and integrated into the U.S. economy as Mexico.
Ebrard, too, cautioned that tariffs would be “devastating” to both nations’ economies and would force Mexico to consider retaliatory punitive measures.
There were several signs that the administration was looking for a way out.
Peter Navarro, the White House trade advisor, who initially championed punishing the Mexican government, told CNN on Wednesday morning that the measures may no longer be necessary because the administration had succeeded in getting Mexico’s attention.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been firmly opposed to the tariff plan, said he was confident it was going to be averted.
“There’s not going to be any tariffs,” Grassley said. He said he expected the Mexican delegation at the White House to present a “long list of things they’re going to offer to us” that would make tariffs unnecessary.
“I did have a good feeling about progress being made, and Mexico’s up here to make good-faith offers, and they know that this is a partnership that they want to maintain,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) made a similar prediction. “I do expect the Mexican administration and the White House to work out a deal,” he said. “No one wants to see tariffs, and the president knows that the Senate is not anxious to see tariffs.”
A senior administration official said it was “a virtual certainty” that the first 5% tranche of tariffs would go into effect, if only briefly. Trump would be able to count on the absence of much of Congress as a way to avoid an initial challenge, the official said. Numerous lawmakers have traveled to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the World War II D-day invasion.
“He wants to not use blanks,” the official said of Trump’s determination to follow through on his threat. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The situation could be resolved shortly after the tariffs take effect if Mexico shows good faith on asylum, trafficking and people-smugglers, the official added.
Complicating the issue, however, the latest figures from the Homeland Security Department showed that the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico continued to rise in May. Administration officials have learned that those monthly numbers often incite Trump’s frustration and anger.
More than 144,000 migrants were taken into custody, according to the Customs and Border Protection agency, a 32% increase from April and the largest one-month arrest total since Trump took office. The total was the largest monthly figure in 13 years, officials said Wednesday.
Ebrard expressed optimism all week that he and his colleagues would be able to persuade the administration to reverse course.
“We think there is going to be negotiation, and we will encounter common ground,” he said Tuesday.
On Twitter last week, Trump announced he would impose a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports starting Monday and then increase the taxes steadily to 25% by October, unless the Lopez Obrador government stops the migration of Central Americans through Mexican territory to the U.S. border.
Thousands of mostly Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, fleeing poverty and violence at home, have reached the U.S.-Mexico border and sought to claim asylum. Seeking asylum is a legal way to enter a country, but Trump has ridiculed asylum claims as a hoax.
Mexico exports nearly $400 billion worth of products to the U.S. annually, making it one of the top U.S. trading partners.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as economists and business leaders, have objected to Trump’s plan, saying the tax increase would cost jobs and raise prices for U.S. consumers on items ranging from automobiles and television sets to avocados, fruit and beer.
The threat of tariffs also undermines the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement that was negotiated among the United States, Mexico and Canada and championed by Trump. The deal must be ratified by legislatures in the three countries in order to take effect, a process that was beginning just as Trump stunned regional leaders with his tariff threat.
Trump cited an unusual legal mechanism to levy the tariffs, the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, which is normally reserved to punish enemy nations.
“This is not a way to treat a friend,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Wednesday. “It’s wrong. I don’t even think it rises to the level of policy. I think it’s notion-mongering.”
Pelosi, who met with Ebrard and the delegation earlier in the week, said the tariff imbroglio was Trump’s way of distracting attention from the recent report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that chronicled possible obstruction of justice acts committed by the president.
“And it’s served its purpose,” she said. “Here we are.”
Senior Republican lawmakers also balked and warned they would move to block Trump’s action — a rare confrontation from within his party. Trump earlier in the week warned it would be “foolish” to challenge him.
The administration has long pressed Mexico to accept designation as a “safe third country,” which would require people fleeing other countries to apply for asylum in Mexico instead of traveling on to the United States. Ebrard has said his government would never accept such a designation.
As talks proceed in Washington, Mexican authorities seem determined to show that they are cracking down on Central Americans entering Mexico from the country’s southern border with Guatemala.
On Wednesday, federal police and immigration agents detained more than 500 migrants from the latest U.S.-bound caravan along the highway leading north from the Guatemalan border. It was the second time in recent weeks that Mexican officials had broken up a caravan of Central Americans.
Since April, Mexico has stepped up enforcement along the roads that thousands of caravan participants had previously traversed without interference.
In the April-May period, according to government figures, Mexican authorities detained 43,258 foreigners — almost double the figure from the same two-month period in 2018.
Deportations were also up — Mexican authorities reported deporting 30,624 foreign nationals in April and May, an increase of 66.9% from the same period in 2018.
Enhanced enforcement is politically tricky for Lopez Obrador, a leftist who prefers to emphasize the protection of migrants’ human rights and the need to resolve the root causes of massive migration by improving economies and security in Central America. The president’s predecessor was often accused of “doing Washington’s dirty work” by cracking down on migrants.
Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire and Caroline Engelmayer in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Mexico City contributed to this article.
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