Time will be the ultimate judge of whether President Donald Trump succeeded in crafting an effective new deal with Mexico over border security, or whether a confusing set of claims and counterclaims over the weekend were more bluster than substance.
If, in a few months, the crush of immigrants and asylum-seekers eases, the details of who did what, and when, won’t matter as much. If the crush continues, border politics is likely to continue in Washington, just as nasty as ever, and threats of tariffs likely will return.
But in the meantime, confusion seems to abound.
What exactly did the president extract from Mexico that caused him to back away, at seemingly the last possible moment, from imposing tariffs? Trump, using Twitter, referred to a “fully signed and documented” deal with Mexico that gives the U.S. things for which it has been asking for years. This, he said, would “be revealed in the not too distant future and will need a vote by Mexico’s legislative body.”
But The New York Times reported over the weekend that the deal provides little more than terms to which Mexico already had agreed, or which had been under discussion long before the threat of tariffs. Then on Monday, Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, held a news conference to say there is no secret or soon-to-be revealed agreement. Both sides had agreed to monitor the border to see whether the flow of migrants is reduced. If improvement doesn’t come within a specified time limit, they will discuss more aggressive measures, including a regional approach to asylum.
This agreement to revisit the situation may have been what the president was referring to, officials told the Times. Or perhaps not — no one seems certain. We hope further details come soon.
The danger in this nebulous and uncertain narrative is that the president is claiming victory for the weaponization of tariffs. By threatening to impose 5 percent tariffs on Mexico that would rise monthly unless a border agreement is reached, then pulling back after declaring victory, he has signaled a desire to use similar threats to resolve other international problems.
We have reluctantly supported the president’s trade dispute with China, realizing that, despite how much trade has helped businesses here prosper, the Chinese are demanding too much from American concerns in exchange for the right to access their markets.
Mexico, however, is another matter. Tariffs are unrelated to immigration and asylum issues. In addition, the threat of tariffs seemed to violate the newly crafted U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. If it didn’t violate this, it certainly did inject an element of uncertainty. Mexican officials may be wondering about the validity of the terms of that agreement, or whether they will face further trade-threatening broadsides from the president as other problems manifest themselves.
That agreement still requires congressional action. The tariff threat appeared to be a bigger problem among Republicans than Democrats in that regard, but perhaps only because Democrats were skeptical from the beginning.
Amid all this confusion, one thing may be said with certainty. Mexico is an important trade partner with the United States. Many American companies have supply chain agreements with companies south of the border or operate their own plants in Mexico.
Disrupting this partnership would hurt both sides. With that in mind, it’s a good thing the threat of tariffs disappeared over the weekend, regardless of the details. It’s a bad thing, however, if it means tariffs now are locked, loaded and ready to use in other disputes.