Donald Trump’s aides and allies scrambled Friday to put a positive spin on the president’s threat to hit Mexico with new tariffs, fearing that the move could cost him his strongest re-election talking point — the economy.
Trump made the move late Thursday, overriding the concerns of several top aides, including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and catching his surrogates off guard. In the hours that followed, the Trump campaign and some White House aides were slow to respond to questions about the decision, a sharp contrast to the coordinated messaging that came after other recent major news events, including the end of the Russia probe and Trump’s recent immigration policy rollout.
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The reaction illustrated Trump’s isolation on the issue and the degree to which the president was freelancing — the rollout of the decision was not fully prepared when Trump tweeted about it. It wasn’t just White House aides who opposed the move. Prominent Republicans lashed out, business leaders sounded the alarm and the president’s biggest campaign supporters openly acknowledged their anxiety.
Scott Jennings, who worked under President George W. Bush and is close to the Trump White House, said Trump will get credit from his base, but conceded that he is “extraordinarily nervous” about the possible economic effect of the tariffs. Stocks took a hit Friday as jittery business leaders warned that the tactic was woefully misguided, damaging American consumers and likely resulting in retaliatory tariffs by Mexico.
“If the economy slows down and ceases to be red hot, that’s going to make it hard to be re-elected,” Jennings said.
By midday Friday, Trump allies had settled on their message: Trump was taking decisive action to cut illegal immigration, even if it meant threatening the U.S. economy in the short run. And they stressed that the economy has stayed strong despite similar dire warnings every time Trump previously imposed tariffs.
“The president has been doing these disruptive actions and the threats of these disruptive actions for two years and the economy is the strongest it’s been in half a century,” said Bryan Lanza, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition and remains close to the White House. “Economists don’t know how to mold around President Trump.”
Trump on Thursday said he would impose a 5 percent tariff on all goods from Mexico starting on June 10 unless the country takes actions to stop Central American migrants from entering the U.S. If Trump remains unsatisfied with Mexico’s actions, he said he will jump the tariffs each month until they hit 25 percent on Oct. 1.
It’s not the first time Trump has used the threat of tariffs to try and bully a country into taking action. He favors using tariffs because they are immediate and don’t need congressional approval, according to people familiar with his thinking. The president has previously imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods and on metals from Europe and Japan.
This time, Stephen Miller, the administration’s most influential advocate for stricter immigration policies, was the most vocal White House aide pushing to hit Mexico with tariffs. On the other side were aides, including Lighthizer, who opposed the move in part because it could risk a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, a top legislative priority.
A White House official said the aides who opposed the tariffs weren’t vocal enough when they spoke to Trump, perhaps because the tariffs won’t go into effect until June 10, giving Mexico time to act. When recently meeting with staff about the issue, Trump had made up his mind on the issue, but did ask senior advisers if anyone disagreed with the policy, the official said.
Trump has grown more frustrated in recent months with his administration’s inability to halt the surge of immigrants crossing the southern border, one of his signature 2016 campaign promises.
He has long considered tariffs in retaliation for what he believes is the Mexican government’s failure to stem the tide of immigrants coming into the U.S., which has reached its highest level in years. U.S. Border Patrol arrested nearly 99,000 migrants at the border in April, many from Central America.
But his announcement frustrated aides who think tariffs will drive up costs of consumer goods, hurt the broader economy and jeopardize the trading relationship with the U.S.’s neighbor and ally. Trump has said that he thinks tariffs are paid by the U.S.’s trading partners but economists say that Americans are actually paying for them.
After Trump made his decision Thursday, aides began to plan for the rollout — which had not been fully prepared — by contacting Republican lawmakers and holding a conference call with reporters.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump is “the only one who’s stepping up” to try to stop rising immigration at the southern border. Campaign spokesman Kayleigh McEnany said “President Trump’s tariffs are a necessary step to catalyze action.”
Trump surrogates were sent an email Friday with talking points titled “President Trump Takes Decisive Action to Secure the Border and Keep Our Nation Safe.”
And Trump, as he often does, began his own messaging strategy on Twitter.
“Mexico has taken advantage of the United States for decades. Because of the Dems, our Immigration Laws are BAD,” he wrote. “Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem. Time for them to finally do what must be done!”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.