In employing bluff, bluster and bargaining tools to force a border agreement on Mexico, Donald Trump melded two of the most controversial – and unrelated – elements of contemporary debate in the United States: immigration and tariffs.
But the administration’s gambit – “Trump’s unprecedented weaponization of tariffs in addressing non-trade issues,” in the characterization of Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council think tank – had powerful aftershocks that will continue to rumble through Washington this week and stoke powerful resentments.
In late May, Mr. Trump threatened tariffs on Mexican imports – beginning at 5 per cent and, over time, escalating as high as 25 per cent – as a way of stanching illegal migration to the United States. Late Friday night, he used Twitter to announce the U.S. and Mexico had reached an immigration enforcement deal and tariffs scheduled for Monday would be suspended.
His apparent victory, more illusory than real because it comprised elements Mexico agreed to months ago, further alienated important business groups, antagonized his putative allies on Capitol Hill and deepened suspicions across North America, where the revision of NAFTA remains a raw issue even as congressional approval of the new pact remains uncertain.
“The challenge, as always, is to figure out what is real with Trump and what is not,” said David Rehr, an influential Washington lobbyist before becoming director of the Center for Business Civic Engagement at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “This is typical with the ‘make-a-deal’ Trump, to come out with the strongest proposal, intimidate his opponents a bit, drive them to the table, and then say ‘we got the best deal ever’ and ‘we are great.’ ”
One sobering sign of the cost of the Trump initiative: the poor performance in U.S. job creation in May. Friday’s disappointing employment report showed only 75,000 jobs had been created all month, a poor performance widely blamed on Mr. Trump’s tariff policies.
That distressing report served to underline that the implications, social and economic, of applying trade penalties to immigration policy goals are great. The Business Roundtable, an assembly of CEOs of the country’s leading corporations, issued a blistering warning to the President after his announcement, saying the business leaders were “deeply concerned about the threat or imposition of tariffs to press policy changes with our neighbors and allies.”
The danger of employing one contentious policy to drive changes in another is that the tactic ends up warping them both.
“Since 9/11, immigration has been more about border security than it ever has been before,” said Victor Narro, director of UCLA Labor Center and professor in the labor and workplace studies department at the California university. “But now Trump has dismantled many of the principles of immigration – a lot of it once was about family unity – and by adding tariffs to the mix he made the whole issue more complicated. The result is to make immigration even more political than it has been before and it dehumanizes the whole process.”
And for all Mr. Trump’s tweets of triumph over the weekend, few immigration experts, citing the length and porousness of the border, believe it actually is possible to stop immigration from south of the Mexican border completely.
The Trump plan, moreover, spawned considerable criticism north of the Mexican border, with Senate Republicans lined up against it and with the Republicans’ generations-long allies in business and in agriculture ardently opposed to the President’s plan and the broader notion of applying tariffs to win separate political goals.
Though Senate Republicans have been reluctant to go beyond expressing opposition to many of Mr. Trump’s initiatives, lawmakers from farm states, especially Iowa’s two Republican senators, remain vocal in their protests that Trump trade initiatives hurt agricultural exports, particularly soybeans.
“Four of our top five export countries are affected by tariff negotiations going on now,” said Jamie Johansson, a northern California olive farmer who is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. The state is America’s largest agricultural-exporter, where citrus, cherries and almonds are particularly hard hit from Trump trade policies. “It’s made things very, very tough here in the state.”
This latest Trump offensive against Mexico prompted the vigorous opposition of the United States Chamber of Commerce – customarily a strong supporter of Republican presidents – and served as a precursor to new tensions in the weeks ahead as Mr. Trump warned the Mexico tariffs remained on the table.
“Imposing tariffs on goods from Mexico is exactly the wrong move,” Chamber executive vice-president Neil Bradley said in a statement. “These tariffs will be paid by American families and businesses without doing a thing to solve the very real problems at the border.”
This opposition from the most prominent voice of American business is the latest in a series of episodes in which the Trump administration has met opposition from a sector Republicans for decades relied on as a natural ally.
“You’d think that business would be in lock step with a president who was in business,” said George Mason University’s Mr. Rehr. “But the President believes in disruption, and business does not like disruption.”