Trump backs off threat to close border, capping a week of retreats

"We're going to give [Mexico] a one-year warning," President Trump said Thursday.
“We’re going to give [Mexico] a one-year warning,” President Trump said Thursday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Trump backed away from his threat to shut down the country’s southern border, but vowed to impose additional tariffs on automobiles in a year — if Mexico doesn’t do more to stop the flow of drugs and immigrants.

“We’re going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don’t stop or largely stop, we’re going to put tariffs on Mexico and products, particularly cars,” Trump said Thursday. “The whole ballgame is cars.” If that didn’t work, he could still move to close the border, he added.

The new threat of auto tariffs, which leading Republicans quickly suggested was a nonstarter, came on the eve of Trump’s visit to the California border. It capped a series of retreats over the last several days by the president, whose blustery brand of policymaking has prompted surprisingly strong resistance recently from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Trump told Republican senators he wanted them to try again to pass legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act. After Republicans privately and publicly rebuked him for that politically perilous idea, he pivoted Tuesday to a face-saving claim that his party would make repealing and replacing the healthcare law its first order of business — in 2021.

Although Republicans are publicly praising Trump for being prudent — “that’s a good sign, he listens to us,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — their back-to-back rebukes have forced the White House to confront the risk of policy declarations delivered in tweets, a practice Trump has often indulged in with little review in advance by his aides.


“The president’s rhetoric is increasingly colliding with a brick wall of reality,” said Michael Steel, who served as an aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “A tactical retreat shielded by a barrage of bluster is an improvement over pushing ahead when you’re just beating your head against the wall.”

Trump’s retreats this week come against a backdrop of increasing pressure from Capitol Hill, where Republicans have felt more free to separate from him on some issues and Democrats have stepped up their investigative pressure.

In recent days, House Democrats demanded the IRS turn over Trump’s tax returns, prepared subpoenas to obtain the full text of Robert S. Mueller III’s report on his Russia investigation, and launched efforts to delve into the administration’s practice of issuing security clearances to some aides, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, over the objection of career officials.

House Democrats on Thursday also started the process of filing suit against the Trump administration for spending money on the border wall that Congress didn’t authorize.

And the House gave final approval to a resolution previously passed by the Senate that would end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump is expected to veto the measure, which amounts to a bipartisan rebuke of the administration’s foreign policy.

“The president will have to face the reality that Congress is no longer going to ignore its constitutional obligations when it comes to foreign policy,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat.

Roughly a week after his first threats to “close the damn border,” Trump will travel Friday to visit the border at Calexico, intent on showing off recently upgraded segments of border fencing and focusing the public’s attention on an influx of migrants.

Congressional Republicans, who have largely supported the president on immigration matters, almost universally panned the idea of closing the border.

Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans who seldom split with the president, called the idea a mistake, warning that it would cause economic harm to border regions and to trade more broadly.

“Closing the border to legal commerce would be devastating to Texas,” Cruz said in a statement. “Millions of jobs, in Texas and across the country, depend upon trade with Mexico, and the federal government shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize those jobs.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used the word “catastrophic” to describe the proposal. Other Republicans who typically support the president, such as Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, went public with their opposition, too.

Trump began softening his threat on Tuesday while attempting to appear as though he was not backtracking. He told reporters in the Oval Office that “security is more important to me than trade,” but praised Mexico for now “apprehending more people.”

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard appeared to contradict Trump at a news conference later that day in Mexico City, saying that the country’s immigration policy hasn’t changed since December, when President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office.

By Thursday, after Republicans cautioned the president in several phone conversations about the economic and political costs of a border closure, Trump fully retreated, but said the new threat of auto tariffs was real.

“I will do it,” he said. “You know I will do it. I don’t play games. I will do it.”

In fact, that’s unlikely, too. Cornyn warned that any move toward new auto tariffs could stall Trump’s biggest legislative priority: an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, which Trump calls USMCA.

“We’re not going to get the USMCA approved as long as the tariffs are still in play with Mexico or Canada,” Cornyn said.

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During the comments to reporters inside the Cabinet room, Trump acknowledged the new NAFTA but glossed over the fact that the deal, if ratified by lawmakers in all three countries, would essentially exempt Mexico — as well as Canada — from future auto tariffs.

Trump’s sharp rhetoric Thursday seemed intended to obscure what was his second walk-back in recent days.

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) both spoke by phone with Trump after he suggested that Republicans should try again to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their own plan — no GOP plan currently exists.

“I made it clear to him we were not going to be doing that in the Senate,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “He accepted that and [he said] that he would be developing a plan that he’d be taking to the American people during the 2020 campaign.”

At a fundraising dinner for congressional Republicans on Tuesday night, Trump implored lawmakers to come up with a new healthcare proposal and to run on it, speaking in blunt terms about how the issue is currently a political winner for Democrats.

“They have healthcare right now,” he said. “We have to take that away from them. We have to protect and cannot run away from a thing called preexisting conditions.”

The president’s comments on healthcare drew a lukewarm response in a room filled with Republican House leaders, members, staffers and lobbyists — all well aware of their political liability on healthcare and uneasy about Trump’s determination to highlight it.

“They know what kind of damage the issue caused in the last election,” said Ken Spain, a former staff member at the Republican congressional campaign committee who is now a GOP lobbyist in Washington. “Healthcare represents the biggest political vulnerability for Republicans going into 2020. There’s plenty for Republicans to run on with a strong economy. There’s no need to re-litigate the healthcare debate.”

Overall, however, Republicans believe they’ve made progress in getting Trump to at least listen to their concerns.

“Congressional Republicans have gotten increasingly confident about their relationships with the president and knowing when brush-back works and how to do it without setting off a counterproductive reaction,” said Steel, the former Boehner aide.

“It’s been a little messy, but we’ve avoided disastrous ideas like unilaterally sealing off the southern border or scrapping the Affordable Care Act without a replacement that covers preexisting conditions. So those are good results.”

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