The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House looks to minimize economic impact of Trump’s threatened closure of Mexico border

President Trump has threatened to close the southern border unless Mexico stops migrants from coming into the U.S. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Senior White House officials are exploring ways to exempt commercial trade from President Trump’s threat to shut down the U.S. border with Mexico, three people briefed on the discussions said, amid warnings that blocking the flow of goods between the two countries would have severe consequences for the U.S. economy.

In brief remarks, Trump on Tuesday again threatened to close the border but would not definitively say whether he would do so, and he has not divulged his plans even to some of his closest aides. But the White House is bracing for the possibility and internal planning has reached an advanced stage, according to the three people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the deliberations.

Trump plans to visit the Mexico border in California on Friday, where some aides are bracing for a possible announcement. Even though White House officials had begun deliberating, business groups expressed skepticism that any plan might work in a way that limits potential problems.

As Trump has escalated his threats to close the border in recent days, top aides have launched a two-pronged strategy in preparation for a decision.

One approach has been to study ways to minimize the economic impact of shutting the border with the United States’ second-largest trading partner, in part by allowing trains and trucks to continue bringing goods across the border.

The second prong has included internal warnings to Trump about what might happen if the border is sealed, messages delivered by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Kevin Hassett, head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

“We’re watching it and looking for ways to allow the freight passage. Some people call it truck roads,” Kudlow said in an interview with CNBC. “And there are ways you can do that, which would ameliorate the breakdown in supply chains.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on April 2 said closing the southern border would have a “potentially catastrophic impact” on the United States. (Video: The Washington Post)

A senior White House official said Trump has been bombarded with a number of advisers warning against closing the border and that the current plan is not to close it during his Friday visit.

“People are getting a plan in place so if he orders it done, it’s not the end of the world,” the official said.

Many U.S. manufacturers rely on the import of parts and equipment from Mexico to complete production and ship machinery, cars or other goods.

At the Brownsville, Tex., border crossing last year, close to 700 trucks crossed the border each day, according to data from the Transportation Department.

Senate Republicans have also begun sounding alarms about what might happen if Trump follows through on his threat, focusing on the economic impact because that often resonates with Trump.

“Closing down the border would have a potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope that we would not be doing that sort of thing,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said shutting down the border could cost the U.S. economy $1 billion to $2 billion each day.

Trump’s vow to close the border comes after several tense months in U.S.-Mexico relations. The Mexican government last year agreed to restructure the North American Free Trade Agreement after Trump threatened to rip up the 1994 deal. But the new agreement has been bogged down in the U.S. Congress, in part because Democrats want more assurances on how certain provisions will be enforced.

And Trump earlier this year declared the situation at the Mexico border a national emergency, a designation that he has said allows him to redirect taxpayer money to expedite the construction of a wall.

But the recent surge of families and other migrants trying to cross into the United States has led Trump to call for even more immediate steps, with his focus in recent days shifting to closing down the border.

The president said Tuesday that he is more focused on security concerns than the impact closing the border would have on the U.S. economy.

“Sure, it’s going to have a negative impact on the economy,” he told reporters, while saying it was possible only certain sections of the border would be closed. “Security is more important to me than trade.”

Trump has also been told by some advisers that it would be extremely difficult to operationally shut down the border, but he has told them to move forward with looking at ways to achieve the feat.

As of Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials had not yet been instructed to prepare for the possibility of shutting down the border, according to a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen cut short a trip to Europe this week and returned to Washington early Tuesday morning to manage the agency’s response at the border, DHS officials said.

At least 545 blue-uniformed CBP officers have been redeployed to help Border Patrol agents detain and process Central American families arriving in record numbers. Diverting those officers and other resources away from U.S. ports of entry along the Mexico border is already leading to increased wait times and backups for commercial trucks and vehicles entering the United States.

Wait times for vehicles waiting to cross the border in Brownsville extended to three hours on Monday, a senior DHS official told reporters Tuesday. At the Otay Mesa crossing in San Diego, one of the border’s busiest for cargo, 150 commercial trucks were stuck in line Monday, officials said.

Despite the logistical and economic concerns, White House aides have said this week that Trump is serious about closing the border, even if the timing remains unclear.

Trump has told advisers that he would close the ports of entry and reallocate the Border Patrol agents to other parts of the country. In Trump’s mind, the closure is about leverage — forcing people to think he is about to do it to win other concessions, current and former aides said.

Trump has used a similar approach before with trade negotiations and even in the run-up to the government shutdown last year. Sometimes he backs down at the last moment, and sometimes he follows through.

But the fact that White House officials are looking at ways to address the fallout of his latest threat shows how real the option has become, at least internally.

Completely shutting down the U.S. border with Mexico, as Trump has threatened, could halt all U.S. automotive manufacturing within a week, impacting at least 1 million jobs, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research. She said virtually all U.S. auto production relies on some key parts from Mexico or Central America and that these products are brought into the United States on trucks or trains.

“The building of vehicles requires 100 percent of the parts to be there,” she said, adding that seat belts, engines, transmissions and wiring harnesses are all brought across the U.S. border.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce began raising alarms last week about Trump’s threat to shut down the border, saying it could have a crippling effect on the U.S. economy. But Trump has so far refused to back down.

Mexico is the United States’ second-largest trading partner, meaning that any disruption at the U.S. border could have immediate consequences on the economy. U.S. companies imported $314.3 billion in goods from Mexico in 2017, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. And U.S. companies exported $243.3 billion in goods.

The top imports from Mexico are automobiles, electrical machinery, medical instruments and mineral fuels, among other thing. The United States also imports more agricultural goods from Mexico than from any other country, with $11.5 billion in fresh fruit and vegetables brought into the United States each year.

John Wagner, Nick Miroff and Erica Werner contributed to this report.