President Trump, confronted with the latest surge of migration that threatens his tough-on-the-border image, was ready to launch his newest plan — across-the-board tariffs on Mexican goods, likely to wound the healthy economy and trigger protests from parts of his own party.
But during a Wednesday night huddle inside the Oval Office, Trump was running into a roadblock: his own advisers.
Calling in from his travels in the Middle East, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner argued against imposing unilateral tariffs, warning that the move could imperil the prospects of ratifying a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, according to officials familiar with the meeting. Kushner, a senior White House adviser, insisted that he could still work directly with Mexico to resolve the burgeoning migration crisis.
In the Oval Office with Trump, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer also lobbied against the tariffs, similarly concerned that the drastic threat against the United States’ third-largest trading partner would upend the fragile trade agreement, which still requires Congress’s blessing.
But Trump was unmoved by the arguments and repeatedly said Mexico had to do more, one person with knowledge of the meeting said. The tariffs, he declared, were going to be announced no matter what.
Roughly 24 hours later, Trump would go public with his latest attempt to stop the migration of Central Americans arriving in record numbers at the southern border, seeking to punish Mexico by gradually increasing tariffs on the entire universe of its goods.
This account of Trump’s decision to open a new front in his battles over immigration and trade — and the ensuing fallout — is based on interviews with 14 White House officials, lawmakers, congressional aides and others familiar with the issue, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The tactic sowed disruption on multiple fronts Friday as top Mexican officials rushed to Washington to defuse the threat, the stock market tumbled on the news and administration officials offered little explanation of how increasing the prices of goods from Mexico would stop illegal immigration at the border, a goal that has eluded multiple administrations.
“He’s trying to solve a humanitarian situation by creating economic chaos,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), whose state would be devastated in any trade standoff with Mexico. “He doesn’t have a coherent strategy for how to deal with any of this stuff.”
Still, the chorus of objections that enveloped the White House did little to discourage Trump, who was infuriated after more than 1,000 migrants from Central America surrendered early Wednesday to U.S. officials near El Paso. That development — on the same day that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III delivered an in-person statement on the conclusions of his Russia investigation — marked the largest group of migrants taken into custody by U.S. border authorities in a single event.
On Friday, Trump defended his threat, insisting that Mexico “has taken advantage of the United States for decades.”
“Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem,” Trump tweeted as the pushback from Republican lawmakers and the business lobby continued to pour in. “Time for them to finally do what must be done!”
Under the White House threat, the United States would implement a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican imports starting June 10 if illegal migration hadn’t stopped by then. That figure would rise to a 10 percent tariff on July 1 and then an additional 5 percent on the first day of each month for three months, maxing out at 25 percent on Mexican products until the country “substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory.”
In public, Trump administration officials sought to defend the plan by pointing to the rising number of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border — a trend that shows no signs of reversing. The Department of Homeland Security projects that the month of May is on track to record the highest number of border apprehensions in more than a dozen years.
“Let me [be] clear, the current situation is risking the lives of children every day,” acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan said, calling for Mexico to take “significant action” to secure its own southern border.
But privately, top officials were caught in an administration-wide scramble as aides continued to have meetings with Trump on Friday to try to persuade him to reverse course, two officials said.
The idea of enacting unilateral tariffs against Mexico had surfaced repeatedly in internal discussions — and seriously enough that the White House Counsel’s Office had already written a draft of the plan when Trump brought up the proposal again Wednesday, officials said. White House lawyers had been studying their legal options since Trump threatened to shut down the entire U.S.-Mexico border before backing down.
The arguments against the tariffs — voiced internally by Kushner, Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — did little to dissuade Trump, and Kushner was asked to call Mexican officials to inform them of the impending threat.
After the Wednesday night meeting in the Oval Office, the tariff order was finalized by the White House counsel and the office of Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser and immigration hard-liner who oversees domestic policy.
But Thursday morning, it was unclear whether Trump would actually follow through, even as he hinted at a “big league” announcement on immigration before leaving Washington for an Air Force Academy address in Colorado. Other White House offices not included in the initial tariff discussions — such as the legislative affairs division and the office of the public liaison — learned as aides came into work Thursday that Trump was considering such an announcement.
By the time a cadre of senior White House aides assembled for a 4:30 p.m. meeting Thursday, the decision to announce the tariffs was essentially finalized, even though it had appeared to be in flux for much of the day. Trump called in from Air Force One as he returned from Colorado and told the staff that he wanted the announcement put out immediately.
Vice President Pence — traveling in Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and promote the pending trade agreement — separately phoned congressional Republican leaders to inform them of the imminent announcement. The top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.), was told in advance, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), who leads a powerful panel overseeing trade policy, was not, according to their aides.
“The president didn’t blindside his own party,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday. “If Republicans weren’t aware, then they haven’t been paying attention.”
From the driveway of the White House, Sanders continued, “Anybody in this country — or frankly, in the world — that says they’re surprised by this has been living under a rock and not paying attention.”
Nonetheless, Trump told people around him that he was well aware that many Republican senators would not like the tariff threat. Indeed, White House legislative staffers were flooded with calls Thursday night, although they referred all the inquiries to the counsel’s office, according to two senior White House aides.
The objections were particularly pointed Friday from proponents of free trade such as Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), but they also flooded in from border-state Republicans who have been reliable Trump allies but also are on the ballot in 2020.
“While I support the president’s intention of stopping unchecked illegal immigration, I do not support these types of tariffs, which will harm our economy and be passed onto Arizona small businesses and families,” Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.
A spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) conveyed similar sentiments: “Senator Cornyn supports the President’s commitment to securing our border, but he opposes this across-the-board tariff which will disproportionately hurt Texas.”
House Democrats began considering legislative remedies aimed at halting imposition of the tariffs, although one leadership aide said they needed more information from the administration to determine their options.
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, and economic staffers fielded a range of calls Friday from business leaders. In response, the White House told corporate officials to put pressure on Mexico, according to a senior administration official.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government scrambled to stave off the looming taxes, announcing that its delegation and U.S. officials will meet in Washington on Wednesday, with the sides led by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Trump loves tariffs. That’s fine, but this needs to end in policy wins,” said Republican donor Dan Eberhart. “The short-term pain needs to produce a long-term gain for America.”