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Trump’s Mexico tariff plan divides Republicans

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President Trump’s latest effort to crack down on migration at the southern border by imposing punitive tariffs on Mexican goods appears to be driving a wedge between the White House and some of Trump’s biggest supporters in the Senate — including immigration hard-liners who ordinarily back him on border security issues. Among Senate Republicans, only Lindsey Graham of South Carolina publicly backed the tariff plan.

“I support nearly every one of President Trump’s immigration policies, but this is not one of them,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said Thursday evening, shortly after the White House announced its new tariff tactic.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles trade issues, told reporters Thursday that the move was “a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent," and expressed concern that “following through on this threat would seriously jeopardize passage of USMCA,” the new trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that the Trump administration is pushing as a replacement for the existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

On Friday, a number of the president’s other immigration allies seemed to follow Grassley’s lead, including fellow Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.

Among other aspects of the president’s immigration agenda, Ernst has been a vocal proponent of Trump’s push for a border wall. Both she and Grassley voted against legislation to block emergency funding to construct the wall. However, like Grassley, Ernst expressed fears about potential damage these new tariffs might cause the USMCA and, as a result, voters in their state.

“The livelihoods of Iowa farmers and producers are at stake,” Ernst said a statement Friday. “The USMCA would provide much-needed certainty to our agriculture community, at a time when they need it. If the president goes through with this, I’m afraid progress to get this trade agreement across the finish line will be stifled.”

Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley, Donald Trump and Martha McSally. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)
Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley, Donald Trump and Martha McSally. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Various sectors of the U.S. economy are expected to feel the pain of Trump’s announced tariffs, which would start at 5 percent on June 10 and increase at the start of each subsequent month until they reach 25 percent in October, unless the White House decides Mexico has met its demands, which were only loosely defined. However, according to CNBC, the three states likely to suffer the most from this plan are Arizona, Michigan and Texas. Republicans from those states took notice.

In a statement provided to Yahoo News Friday, Arizona senator and staunch Trump ally Martha McSally said, “While I support the president's intention of stopping unchecked illegal immigration, I do not support these types of tariffs, which will harm our economy and be passed onto Arizona small businesses and families.”

"Mexico is Arizona’s No. 1 trading partner, accounting for over $16 billion in 2018 alone,” said McSally, who has been such a strong supporter of the White House approach to border security that she voted against the multibillion disaster aid bill that passed the Senate last week even after Trump agreed to sign it, because it did not include additional funds to address the migrant influx.

A spokesperson for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, expressed a similar sentiment, stating that "Senator Cornyn supports the President’s commitment to securing our border, but he opposes this across-the-board tariff which will disproportionately hurt Texas.”

Other Trump allies such as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, questioned the legal basis for the tariffs. Johnson stopped short of directly opposing the move.

“I'll wait to hear [the White House’s] full justification in terms of how they’re going to impose these tariffs” under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Johnson said during an appearance on Fox News Friday. He added: “I completely understand President Trump's frustration about, first of all Mexico's lack of cooperation, and Congress's failure to act.”

Johnson said he was concerned that tariffs would amount to taxes on American consumers. But he was sympathetic to Trump’s desire to use the duties as “leverage” against Mexico in the effort to get that country’s cooperation on border issues. One of the administration’s demands is an agreement that would designate Mexico a safe haven for refugees, which would relieve the U.S. of the obligation to offer Central American asylum seekers a hearing in the U.S.

Vice President Mike Pence and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a meeting with the Canadian Council for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 30, 2019. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a meeting with the Canadian Council for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 30, 2019. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

“Hopefully, this move by President Trump will bring them to their senses and they'll cooperate with us by enacting something like that,” said Johnson.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly sought to walk the line between support for aggressive action on the border and skepticism over the tariff plan.

“There is a serious humanitarian crisis at our southern border, and it is past time for my Democratic colleagues to finally get serious about meaningful action,” McConnell said in a statement. “As our third biggest trading partner, a healthy and vibrant relationship with Mexico is a vital source of our joint prosperity. Any proposal that impacts this relationship deserves serious examination and I look forward to discussing this plan in greater detail with my colleagues and the administration.”

As of Friday afternoon, Sen. Graham appeared to be the only Republican senator to get behind the president’s tariff plan — at least publicly.

“I support President Trump's decision to impose tariffs on Mexico until they up their game to help us with our border disaster,” Graham tweeted Thursday evening. The message was a direct reversal of Graham’s previous opposition to the idea of trade tariffs with Mexico, which he expressed via Twitter shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

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Explaining the president’s decision to reporters Thursday evening, Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget director and acting White House chief of staff, blamed the crisis at the border on inaction by Congress, especially Democrats.

Mulvaney pointedly mentioned that White House officials did not consult with any congressional Democrats about the tariff proposal before it was announced Thursday evening. But during a Fox News appearance Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested that the concerns of prominent Republicans like Grassley were also of little interest.

“Look, I certainly have a lot of respect for Chairman Grassley, and we work with him on a lot of things. But at the same time, the president’s No. 1 responsibility is to protect Americans, and that’s exactly what he’s doing,” Sanders said.

Pressed by reporters about why American businesses and consumers should pay for the administration’s immigration dispute with Mexico, Sanders said, “Congress should actually fix the laws and we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“Mexico should engage with us, and we wouldn’t have to take these steps.”

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