Mexico crisis shows the limits of Trump’s brinksmanship


Donald Trump

President Donald Trump’s negotiating style with a host of adversaries, real or perceived, is becoming eerily familiar in Washington. | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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The president’s negotiating style has settled into a familiar — and increasingly ineffective — pattern.

You might say it’s The Art of the Deal.

First, spark a crisis by threatening harsh consequences if hazy, unspecified demands aren’t met.

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Then, torque up the suspense as an artificial deadline approaches, while nervous observers warn of the dire consequences of going over the cliff.

And finally, cut a vague, imperfect or constitutionally questionable deal at the last minute, claiming victory and savaging the critics.

This is the pattern, well-worn by now, of President Donald Trump’s negotiations with a host of adversaries, real or perceived — and it’s getting eerily familiar in Washington.

This past week, Trump’s threat was to impose a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican goods entering the United States, and his demand was that Mexico curb a surge of migrants coming largely from Central America.

But it might as well have been the government shutdown — the result of Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund his border wall — his on-again-off-again negotiations with Kim Jong-Un, or, next up, the president’s trade feud with China.

In the case of Mexico, Trump didn’t get all he wanted. Mexican negotiators, for instance, would not agree to changes that would make it easier for the United States to turn down asylum seekers from Central America, though they did assent to allowing some of them to stay in Mexico while their claims are heard in the U.S.

They also agreed to send 6,000 additional troops to their southern border with Guatemala, and got the U.S. to back off threats to impose a 5 percent tariff on all exports that was set to go into effect on Monday.

Those are actions, however, that Mexico has already undertaken, notes Shannon K. O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who warned against the tariffs in an op-ed this week. “So it’s doubling down on what they were doing,” O’Neil told POLITICO, adding that it’s doubtful Mexico has the capacity to meaningfully stem the tide of migrants.

A person familiar with the negotiations under former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed New York Times reporting that much of what Mexico agreed to do this week was already on track months ago. In March, for instance, Mexico secretly pledged to deploy troops to the southern border during a meeting in Miami with Nielsen, and had agreed to the new asylum procedures back in December.

But, this person said, Mexico is now accelerating those efforts to stem the tide of migrants under Trump’s latest pressure campaign.

The ambiguity of the deal offers just enough for the president to claim victory, however. The U.S.-Mexico joint declaration issued Friday evening by the State Department contains no firm metrics to gauge the success — or failure — of the agreement, instead stating that Mexico “will take unprecedented steps” aimed at curbing migrant flow into the U.S. and “decisive action” to stop human smuggling. It does indicate, however, that the countries will continue discussions over the next three months and may announce additional measures.

That was enough for Trump, who tweeted on Saturday morning that “the reviews and reporting on our Border Immigration Agreement with Mexico have been good” and warned people away from the “false reporting (surprise!) by the Fake and Corrupt News Media.”

“Mexico will try very hard, and if they do that, this will be a very successful agreement for both the United States and Mexico!” Trump said.

The eight-day episode, however, cracked open fissures among Republicans, with business groups and GOP senators angrily lobbying the White House to convince the president to back down.

“Existing tariffs and the threat of new tariffs are already slowing manufacturing jobs in America, so it is our hope that the two nations are on a continued path of long-term certainty and stability,” John Bozzella, the president and CEO of Global Automakers, a trade association that represents the U.S. outposts of several international motor vehicle manufacturers, said in a statement.

Cory Gardner, the Colorado Republican who is considered one of the most vulnerable senators of the 2020 election cycle, slammed the prospect of tariffs in a letter to his GOP colleagues on Friday, arguing that they “would negate all the economic benefits of tax reform.”

The brouhaha also exposed the diminishing effectiveness of the president’s negotiating style, if only because of its growing predictability, which is signaling to those across the table that neither he — nor his threats — can be taken seriously.

It was eerily reminiscent of the president’s threat in late March to close the U.S. southern border if Mexico didn’t stop the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the United States — only to back down six days later and issue Mexico a “one-year warning” instead.

Trump then said he would first impose tariffs before closing the border. “The only thing, frankly, better and less drastic than closing the border is tariff the cars coming in, and I will do it,” he said. “I don’t play games.”

The proof, ultimately, of a bargain with Mexico that Trump said “everyone is very excited about” will come months from now, when, according to the joint declaration, the U.S. and Mexico will take “further actions” if it the current agreement does not have the expected results.

O’Neil, of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicts the president will again be disappointed, because Mexico simply lacks the resources to stem the migrant flow.

“Even if they have the political will, they don’t have the capacity,” she said. “So what happens three months from now? You’ve delayed but you haven’t necessarily ended this threat of tariffs.”


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