We’ve seen this before time and time again. Trump’s threat to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement pushed Canada and Mexico to revisit the legendary trade deal, creating an opening for the new deal currently in front of Congress. Trump’s angry words about NATO helped push many countries to increase their defense spending, bringing them closer to the target of 2 percent of gross domestic product the countries have set for themselves. His imposition of tariffs on China, the European Union and Japan have pushed all three entities into trade negotiations that are still ongoing. Trump clearly believes that sometimes the only way to make an omelet is to break some eggs first.
In this case, the dish he wants to make is halting the stream of families coming to the United States as refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Canceling aid to the three nations’ governments gives him leverage, or so he thinks, to get them to do more to prevent the migrants from leaving in the first place. Stopping the aid might have the opposite effect if it worsens conditions. But to the extent that such cuts damage those countries’ militaries or policy forces, the cuts could ratchet up pressure on the civilians who are at least nominally in charge.
In Mexico’s case, the aim is to get them to police their borders more effectively. Most migrants from Central America can arrive in the United States only by traversing a minimum of 1,000 miles through Mexico. That’s nearly impossible to do without coming into contact at some point with Mexican officials, especially if they try to travel in groups or by train, as many do. Hardening the border with Guatemala, increasing inspections on trains going north and improving border security on the Mexican side of the U.S. border are all potential measures Trump could seek in any deal.
Closing the border would instantly put immense pressure on Mexico’s economy, which benefits greatly from trade with the United States. Without daily shipments of agriculture that could spoil or car parts needed for making autos, plants and farms would start to suffer. U.S. consumers, food importers and auto firms would also suffer, but that could turn to Trump’s advantage, too. He would likely tell them to complain to Democrats who have not given him what he wants for border security. If they want relief, get Democrats to deal in good faith, he will say.
Mexico’s new populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has his own reasons to want to deal. He wants to remake Mexico every bit as much as Trump wants to remake the United States. Having the U.S. president on his side could prove to his advantage, and he is likely to want to draw Trump into a conflict first before offering to resolve it — in exchange for something valuable to Mexico.
The only thing surprising about Trump’s latest gambit is that official Washington is still surprised by Trump’s actions. He is, in fact, very predictable. Former Starwood hotel chief executive Frits van Paasschen has said what negotiating with Donald Trump was like, and it is very much like how he operates as president. He takes a “blunt stance” which “is intended to create a smokescreen and to throw you off balance.” But, van Paasschen said, Trump also “makes it very clear what he is trying to get out of the negotiation.” Time and again, Trump has used these tactics with Congress, his staff and foreign leaders. Yet time and again, they are perplexed about how to respond.
Trump’s bottom line is clear: stop the large number of migrant families from arriving at the U.S. border. Parties who can give him what he wants — Democrats, Mexico’s leaders and the Central American governments — should recognize that his threats are made to get their attention so the real bargaining can begin. And since he has already exposed his bottom line, the trading at the bazaar could become very profitable indeed for those who want to subject themselves to the haggling.