WASHINGTON — Exasperated by reports of a flood of illegal border crossings, President Donald Trump summoned his top immigration advisers to demand action. Responding to his mounting concern, including his extreme threats to entirely close the U.S.-Mexico border, they prepared an alternative but still-inflammatory plan to levy escalating tariffs on all Mexican imports to the United States.
Thursday night's surprise announcement of the plan by Trump, threatening to upend ratification chances for his own revised North American free trade pact, demonstrated the lengths to which the risk-taking president is willing to go to crack down on illegal immigration, even in the face of bipartisan criticism, legal challenges and polarized public feelings.
He's setting the tricky politics of immigration and trade — the two issues that defined his candidacy and bedevil his presidency — on a collision course and injecting new tensions into his relations with political allies as he struggles to show results in his campaign for a second term.
"Mexico has taken advantage of the United States for decades," Trump declared anew in a tweet on Friday. That was the morning after he announced the 5% tariff would kick in on June 10 — and increase monthly to 25% "until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied."
"Because of the Dems, our Immigration Laws are BAD. 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!" he said.
Debate over solutions aside, indicators at the border have indeed been getting worse. For May, officials said Thursday, apprehensions are expected to hit their highest level in more than a dozen years and "significantly surpass the record 109,000 in April," said acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
On Wednesday, a group of 1,036 — including families and unaccompanied children — was appended after crossing from Juárez. That was the largest group ever apprehended at the border.
Nonetheless, Trump's tariff prescription for the problem was instantly panned across the political spectrum . Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a usual Trump ally and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it was a "misuse of presidential tariff authority" that would burden American consumers and "seriously jeopardize passage" of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada pact to modify the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Imposing tariffs on goods from Mexico is exactly the wrong move," said Neil Bradley, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , the establishment lobbying giant that now is exploring legal action to block the tariffs.
"These tariffs will be paid by American families and businesses without doing a thing to solve the very real problems at the border," Bradley said, imploring Congress and the president to work together to address border problems.
To both allies and critics, the tariff escalation marks the latest manifestation of Trump's increasing reliance on instinct and his aides' increasing unwillingness or inability to constrain an impulsive leader. Many of the people who had once talked Trump out of going through with his most radical ideas, such as completely shutting down the southern border or renewing the controversial immigrant child separation policy, have been pushed out of the administration, including former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The tariff announcement was made with a striking amount of secrecy for the leak-prone Trump administration, with barely two dozen officials in the West Wing aware of what was to transpire. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer and other officials with trade portfolios were not included in the final discussions Thursday and privately expressed opposition to the move, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Trump is mindful that many of his efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration have been stymied by courts or Congress, and that his promise to build a border wall will be far from fulfilled by the time voters decide his political fate next year. With his campaign depending on even more of his hard-core supporters turning out in 2020 than in 2016, Trump's team is worried that the spike in crossings could prove to be a political headache with his base.
But in aiming for progress on that front, Trump is now throwing into the wager another campaign promise: approval of his renegotiated North American trade pact.
Sandwiched between two presidential foreign trips, and with senior adviser and Mexico liaison Jared Kushner out of the country, the tariff announcement caught many in the White House and on Capitol Hill unawares. Press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the White House had briefed key lawmakers and allies on the plan before it was announced, though some complained they found out only at the last moment, with no time to provide feedback.
While the announcement was a surprise, Trump's ire over a sharp increase in southern border crossings and his demand for increasingly drastic action were not. Trump attorneys, including White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, had been studying how to fulfill the president's wish for weeks and settled on the tariff plan as a more legally-sound move than Trump's push to close the border.
White House officials assert that the tariff announcement was a negotiating tool, designed to get Mexico to act. And, perhaps seeking to calm anxious markets, they suggest the taxes might never take effect.
"We fully believe they have the ability to stop people coming in from their southern border and if they're able to do that, these tariffs will either not go into place or will be removed after they go into place," said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Asked what Mexico can do to avoid the levies, press secretary Sanders said a good start would be for Mexico to send home Central American migrants crossing through their country to get into the United States.
"They can return them back home," she said. "They can stop these massive caravans from coming through their country into ours. That would be a very big first step."