President Trump campaigned on a vow to force Mexico to pay for his border wall as part of his get-tough approach to keeping out migrants. None of this panned out — he’s not getting his wall, and his toughness isn’t deterring migrants, whose flow has exploded, driving him into a fury.
So Trump is now threatening to tax U.S. consumers to force Mexico to keep them out for him.
Welcome to Trump’s latest experiment in crafting complex policy decisions around impulsive rage-threats.
Trump is now threatening to slap a 5 percent tariff on all goods imported from Mexico, to force Mexico to stop the flow of migrants across the southern border. Those are set to hit on June 10.
If Trump decrees that Mexico has not sufficiently obeyed his directives, those tariffs will rise an additional 5 percent each month, until they hit 25 percent, where they will remain until Mexico has satisfied his demands.
This is an astonishingly reckless move, even by Trump’s standards. As The Post reports, it could upend the revamped North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump himself badly needs to succeed for reelection purposes. He needs congressional ratification to make that happen, but this could make that less likely.
What’s more, it could damage the economy. As Bloomberg reports, we import tens of billions of dollars’ worth of cars, trucks, computers and motor vehicle parts from Mexico, and complex supply chains that entangle U.S. products with Mexican ones could get ruptured, magnifying the tariffs’ impact. Bloomberg notes that resulting higher costs will “inevitably be passed on to consumers.”
Three other things about this are noteworthy:
The White House is being shifty on how we’ll know if this is “working,” and that’s exactly the point.
It’s not unreasonable for the Trump administration to generally want cooperation from Mexico in stemming the flow of asylum seekers, a new kind of immigration challenge that really is overwhelming our system. Previous administrations sought this.
What is unreasonable is that the White House won’t say what counts as meeting Trump’s demands. Administration officials say they want Mexico to do more to block Central American migrants from entering Mexico en route to the United States; to crack down more on smuggling networks; and to ensure that migrants can wait in Mexico safely, to implement Trump’s policy of keeping them there rather than entering the United States.
But as Vox reports, officials won’t specify benchmarks for these goals. One official actually says this will be done on an “ad hoc basis,” while also saying “success” entails the number of people crossing the border dropping “in a significant and substantial way.”
Given that migration flows are seasonal, it’s possible that those flows could drop, and Trump could then end the tariffs and declare that they “worked,” as Dara Lind suggests. That would be the whole point of being shifty about what counts as “working.”
But even if that happens, it probably would have done so without the tariffs, and there’s no telling what other damage they might do. Beyond all this, it’s not clear how much of an impact Mexico can have, even if it does everything Trump wants, because the asylum crisis is such a complicated and vast problem, and has many causes.
Trump is raging at Mexico over migrants, while also cutting off aid to Central America.
Trump wants Mexico to do more to stem the flow of asylum seekers, but he’s actively undermining efforts that have a real chance at reducing that flow. He has cut off aid designed to mitigate the terrible conditions in Northern Triangle countries that are a key cause of the migrations.
Members of Trump’s own administration disagree with this: Kevin McAleenan, the acting homeland security secretary, has repeatedly called for such aid to continue.
Trump, however, sees cutting off aid as a way to force those countries to stop “sending” migrants our way. That’s in keeping with his worldview, which sees making asylum seekers suffer and threatening their home countries as the way to halt migrations — since both are just trying to scam us — rather than seeing them as complicated problems with root causes that need attention.
“Move after move after move is about showing how tough they are,” Cecilia Muñoz, a senior policy adviser to Barack Obama who worked on multiple migration crises, told me. “What we have is a refugee crisis in our hemisphere. We need a much broader and more international approach.” Democrats, by the way, have rolled out such an approach.
One can envision scenarios in which Mexico does do more, but even if Trump finds a way of declaring a win on this, there’s no denying that the threats, deterrence efforts and all-around “toughness” have disastrously failed by Trump’s own metrics.
Congress could stop this, but won’t.
Trump is invoking authorities under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which is ordinarily used to impose sanctions, as the legal basis for going around Congress to inflict new tariffs on Mexico. Even some Republicans, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, question the move’s legality.
This is part of a broader pattern, in which Trump has frequently invoked the authority to act unilaterally to impose tariffs, by absurdly claiming they are necessary to address national security or national emergencies. Bipartisan bills have already been introduced to rein in these authorities in some contexts.
Congress could constrain the authority Trump is currently claiming, according to Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It could amend the law Trump is relying upon to “impose tighter constraints on when the president can unilaterally raise tariffs” in response to such a supposed “emergency,” Vladeck told me.
Needless to say, even though Republicans oppose Trump’s tariffs and his legal justification for them, this won’t ever happen.