White House pledges to barrel ahead with Mexico tariffs

By Ted Hesson and Doug Palmer

The White House pledged on Thursday to charge ahead on tariffs on Mexico, saying the U.S. position "has not changed” after officials met for a second day to address the steady flow of Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

Talks between Mexican and U.S. officials at the White House wrapped up without resolution. Several key officials in the administration were unavailable for negotiations. President Donald Trump was in France for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were on the road.

In an interview with Fox News in France taped shortly before the D-Day ceremony, Trump defended his strategy of using tariffs to get countries to the negotiating table. He also slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her criticism of him in recent days.

"I actually don't think she's a talented person," Trump said. "I've tried to be nice to her because I would have liked to have gotten some deals done. She's incapable of doing deals. She's a nasty, vindictive, horrible person."

In Washington, the United States and Mexico held more talks Thursday evening at the State Department. Pence told reporters during a stop in Pennsylvania to promote the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that U.S. officials "made it very clear that Mexico has to step up. They have to do more and they have to do more quickly."

One U.S. official said more meetings are planned this evening at State Department. The State Department didn't respond to multiple requests for information about Pompeo's whereabouts or who participated in Thursday's talks with the Mexican delegation.

A spokesperson for the Mexican Foreign Ministry said Thursday afternoon that the two sides were still talking.

"We continue to explore options to address the growing number of undocumented migrants that pass through Mexico," Roberto Velasco Álvarez wrote on Twitter. “The US position is focused on immigration control measures, ours on development. We have not yet reached an agreement but we continue negotiating.“

Another source familiar with the talks told POLITICO that any deal likely “involves more on enforcement and regional coordination on asylum.”

U.S. officials wouldn’t comment about the specifics of the proposals. “It’s very premature of staff to comment on ongoing negotiations for fear of jeopardizing them,” one White House official said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said it was possible that a 5 percent tariff increase scheduled for Monday could be put off while the negotiations continue. "We’re hopeful that the discussions that are happening right now with the Mexican officials will reach a conclusion and it’s a good one," Thune said.

But both Pence and White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders stressed late on Thursday that the administration was pressing ahead with its plan to impose duties next week.

“At this point the tariffs are going to be imposed on Monday,” Pence said in Pennsylvania. “I’m encouraged they came today with more but it will be a matter for the president to consider.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said he has been in frequent contact with officials at the White House and with the Mexican government and indicated that Mexico has shown a new willingness to address U.S. immigration demands. “I think the Mexicans are going to be doing things they really haven’t done in the past,” he said.

The lawmaker said he was “very hopeful” a deal could be reached, but wasn’t discounting Trump’s willingness to impose tariffs.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced plans for a rally in Tijuana on Saturday to “defend Mexican dignity” and outline Mexico's response if no deal is reached to avoid tariffs.

The Trump administration has been pressing Mexico to sign a "safe third country" agreement, which would require Central American migrants to seek asylum in Mexico if they pass through that country en route to the United States.

Asked about that, Pence said he did not want to negotiate in public. "But we made it very clear that, in addition to internal enforcement, that there would have to be new understandings between the United States and Mexico."

Pence told reporters on Thursday before leaving for a D-Day event in Bedford, Va., that the Trump administration had made some progress on Wednesday in talks with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, but that more work was needed.

“We‘re grateful that the Mexican delegation came forward with proposals. It was a good discussion,” Pence said. “We welcome what [they] put on the table. But, as the president said yesterday, it’s not nearly enough.”

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) vowed to pursue congressional action unless Trump drops his plan.

“The president’s proposed tariffs would hurt American workers, businesses, and consumers," Neal said in a statement. "Commandeering U.S. trade policy to influence border security is an abuse of power. If the president does declare a national emergency and attempt to put these tariffs into place, I will introduce a resolution of disapproval to stop his overreach.”

That could happen as soon as next week, if Trump takes the expected step of declaring a national emergency under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to impose the tariffs, a congressional aide said.

If passed by both houses of Congress, a resolution would have the effect of stopping the new duties. But it's unclear whether opponents of Trump's plan can muster enough votes in both the House and the Senate to overcome a presidential veto.

Most Republicans share Trump's concern about the increase in Central American migrants entering the United States, even if they worry about the harm of tariffs on local businesses and the national economy.

Meanwhile, Customs brokers are warning there has not been nearly enough time for them to prepare for a tariff increase. Industry leaders wrote to the administration on Wednesday, urging it to delay the new import duties until U.S. Customs and Border Protection “can develop the procedures by which importers and brokers and reasonably pay them.”

“It is our responsibility as the most knowledgeable professionals, to express our grave concern, even alarm, that it will be impossible to comply, as the mechanisms for compliance are not available between now and June 10, or even before the increase planned for July 1,” the Pacific Coast Council of Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association wrote in a letter.

Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been working to formalize Trump’s plan, which he announced on Twitter late last week, but had little information to share about the effort on Thursday.

“CBP is working through the details and the technical aspects to implement tariffs on Mexico,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week issued an analysis of how tariffs on Mexico would affect various states. Crucial border states like Texas and 2020 battleground states like Michigan and Ohio would be those hardest hit by the duties, the Chamber said.

If a deal is not reached in the next several days, Trump plans to begin imposing a 5 percent duty on all imports from Mexico beginning on Monday and to ratchet that up by 5 percentage points each month until it reaches 25 percent on Oct. 1 or a deal is made.

The firm U.S. tone stood in contrast with Ebrard’s generally upbeat appraisal of meetings at the White House on Wednesday with Pence, Pompeo, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and other administration officials.

“We are optimistic because we had a good meeting with respectable positions from both sides,” Ebrard said Wednesday after the talks. Ebrard and the rest of the Mexican delegation met on Thursday with lower-ranking U.S. officials.

Trump’s mind was also on trade, amid all of the pageantry of his whirlwind trip to Europe, which included a state dinner with the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth II.

“The Democrats — Congress has been a disaster. They won't change. They won't do anything. They want free immigration — immigration to pour into our country,” Trump told reporters on the airport tarmac in Ireland before departing for D-Day ceremonies in France.

The president expressed hope about making progress in the trade talks with Mexico. But he also doubled down on his threat, predicting that "something pretty dramatic could happen."

He also ripped the criticism he’s received — including from his own party, which has protested his plan and is eyeing a formal rebuke once it’s finally put in motion.

“And a lot of people, senators included, they have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to tariffs,” he told reporters. “They have no — absolutely no idea.”

Anita Kumar, Adam Behsudi, Nahal Toosi, Daniel Lippman and Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.