By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Frustrated at an unending flow of migrants across the southern border, President Donald Trump overruled the advice of his two top trade advisers in abruptly imposing tariffs on Mexico, sources familiar with the situation said on Friday.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were both “blindsided” when Trump made the decision, said one of the sources.
Lighthizer had expressed fears that slapping the tariffs on Mexico could complicate efforts to get Congress to approve a recently agreed trade pact between the United States, Mexico and Canada, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.
Trump announced on Thursday that as of June 10 he would impose a 5% tariff on all goods coming from Mexico and would continue to ratchet it higher until Mexico takes action to stop an increase in mostly Central American migrants crossing the U.S. southern border with Mexico.
Jeff Emerson, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, said on Friday that Lighthizer “supports the president and supports what the president is doing.”
But the sources said Lighthizer had disagreed with Trump on the tariffs.
Emerson said the USTR will not be administering the Mexico tariffs, as it has done for duties levied on some $250 billion of Chinese goods in Trump’s trade war with Beijing.
Instead, he referred questions about the tariffs on Mexico to the Department of Homeland Security, which will be the lead agency in the effort.
Spokespersons for the U.S. Treasury and DHS could not immediately be reached for comment.
Trump had grown increasingly agitated in recent days about the situation along the border, frustrated that nothing his administration had tried was stopping the surge in migrant arrivals, two administration officials said.
In April, U.S. border officers apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the U.S. southern border, the highest monthly figure since 2007.
Trump has diverted money from government agencies to pay for a border wall, an effort that has been tied up in courts, and his administration has separated some migrants from their children, but the policies have not had a significant effect on reducing the number of people crossing illegally.
He is eager to use immigration as an issue for his 2020 re-election campaign, but is under pressure to show results that he promised during his 2016 presidential run.
Trump had in the past talked about getting tougher on Mexico with tariffs but advisers had talked him out of it. This time, however, he decided to go ahead, two sources close to him said.
“He’s putting his foot down,” one said.
Trump felt that tariffs had forced Mexico to respond to U.S. concerns over trade relations in the past and wanted to try the tactic again. The decision was supported by Stephen Miller, his hawkish immigration adviser, the administration officials said.
CNBC, which initially reported the opposition by Mnuchin and Lighthizer, quoted a source as saying Trump made the decision on immigration after becoming “riled up” by conservative radio commentary about the surge in border crossings.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said earlier on CNBC that he believed Mexico will respond “very favourably and very quickly” to Trump’s tariff action.
In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador predicted that Trump would ease up on his demands and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he had begun negotiating with officials in Washington.
Navarro praised Trump’s tariff plan as a “brilliant move” to pressure Mexico to help secure its own southern border and break up criminal gangs that he said were profiting from facilitating migration from Central America and through Mexico to the United States.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Makini Brice, David Lawder and Jeff Mason; Writing by David Alexander and David Lawder; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)