WASHINGTON — Even Republicans with deep misgivings about President Trump have been all too happy to back his agenda on taxes, abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration. But now the president may have found the one red line Republicans won’t let him cross: tariffs on Mexico, which they see as arbitrarily threatened over immigration.
But on Tuesday Trump stepped right over that line and dared Senate Republicans to do something about it.
“I think it’s more likely that the tariffs go on, and we’ll probably be talking during the time that the tariffs are on, and they’re going to be paid,” Trump said, brushing aside Senate threats to block them.
“I don’t think they will do that,” Trump said. “I think if they do, it’s foolish.”
Trump’s insistence on slapping punitive tariffs on Mexico unless it stops the migrant flow — 5% starting Monday and potentially escalating to 25% — is the first major showdown between the president and Senate Republicans over policy, and Republicans now have to decide how far they’ll go to oppose a president who is otherwise delivering on their agenda.
Some are hinting the first casualty could be Trump’s signature trade deal, the re-write of NAFTA known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
“This raises a needless question when there was a victory in hand, you know,” Senate Finance Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told VICE News at the Capitol.
On Wednesday Grassley was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mexican officials, including their foreign minister. They’re in Washington this week trying desperately to derail Trump’s plan to levy tariffs on their nation’s products until their government stops the flow of migrants entering the U.S.
Even with his opposition to tariffs, Grassley says he supports Trump’s goal of ending the flow of migrants.
“I just want to help the president with everything he wants to do. And I think USMCA is my number one goal, and I hope that he is on the cusp of a victory,” Grassley said. “He ought to assume that victory.”
But others concede that the USMCA is in trouble.
“I think this would jeopardize the USMCA, which I don’t know why we would want to do," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
The USMCA still needs to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, along with the governments of Mexico and Canada, which agreed to the deal in November. While Trump still hasn’t won over skeptical Democrats on his new trade deal, his latest negotiating move with Mexico isn’t helping his cause within his own party.
“Tariffs are not real popular in the Republican Conference”
“Tariffs are not real popular in the Republican Conference,” said Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “We’ve been supportive when they’re used as leverage to get a better deal.”
Some are worried that the tariffs amount to a tax on the American consumer and will hasten the end of a near 10-year expansion of the economy.
“Tariffs — and then the resulting tariff retaliation — is like shattered glass. You see it in the stock market. You see it all over the world,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said as he was walking to a closed-door meeting with his fellow Republicans and White House lawyers. “I wish we could find a different way to accommodate our weaknesses — especially the one with Mexico which is now not on trade but it is on border security.”
Tariff opponents predict they have the votes to override a veto if Trump goes through with this latest diplomatic threat, but most members of the contemporary Republican Party – even those who vehemently oppose tariffs — are once again giving Trump a long leash in negotiations.
“Somehow this president doesn’t mind having a lot of balls in the air. In fact I think that he seems to function in that realm rather well,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told VICE News at the Capitol. “He’s nonconventional. It’s the new normal.”
With most of the administration’s top negotiators accompanying Trump in the U.K. on Tuesday, Republicans met with White House and Department of Justice lawyers. Six senators gave them an earful on how the GOP won’t help Trump slap tariffs — or taxes — on Mexican goods even if they helped sustain his veto of the emergency declaration on border wall funding.
“I made that point. This would be a different vote on a national emergency act for the purposes of enacting tariffs,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told reporters after leaving the private meeting. “This would certainly give me great pause in terms of supporting that type of declaration to enact tariffs, versus building the wall, which I completely support.”
Instead Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, says he’s been working to apply pressure on America’s southern and central American neighbors to avoid this increasingly public GOP family feud. He recently talked to the ambassador of Guatemala and met with the Mexican ambassador and foreign minister to get their support for his “Operation Safe Return” proposal, which would change existing law to make it easier to reject migrants seeking asylum in America.
While winning over Democratic votes on a measure like that will be difficult – if not impossible – Johnson’s hoping if America’s neighbors to the south get on board with a proposal like that, it could get Trump to back down from launching another all-out tariff war. A war they say he’ll lose.
“Listen, Republicans don’t like taxes on American consumers,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a problem when tariffs are used [as] leverage to get a deal. That’s fine.”
That’s why even though GOP senators are voicing their opposition more forcefully than they have in the past, they’re also hoping they don’t have to actually break with Trump and potentially overturn his tariffs on the Senate floor – which would be the most high-profile rebuke of his presidency from his own party to date.
“I’m hoping that it doesn’t come to that. I’m hoping that we don’t go down this road,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “But we’ll see what happens if the president pulls that trigger.”
Cover: From left to right, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, U.S. President Donald Trump, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Greece's president, and Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, attend a ceremony to mark the 75th Anniversary of D-Day in Portsmouth, U.K., on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (Photo: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images)