Analysis: Were Mexico's 'New' Concessions Really Agreed to Prior to Trump's Tariff Threat?

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Posted: Jun 10, 2019 1:55 PM
Analysis: Were Mexico's 'New' Concessions Really Agreed to Prior to Trump's Tariff Threat?

The prevailing conventional wisdom took several turns over the weekend, as the political and media class grappled with the development that President Trump's tariff gambit against Mexico had apparently paid dividends.  Trump announced on Friday evening that his administration had struck a deal featuring significant Mexican concessions, resulting in the threatened tariffs being canceled.  This, it seemed, was a measurable policy victory -- despite strong bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill:


The agreement entails the deployment of thousands of additional Mexican National Guard troops for the purpose of stepped up enforcement, as well as an expanded arrangement under which US-bound asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims were reviewed and processed.  In spite of concerns and warnings from critics -- myself included -- that opening up yet another battlefront on tariffs and linking punitive action on trade to a separate policy matter was an unwise move (I still believe broadly hold that view for a number of reasons), it nevertheless looked like Trump had wrung results out of our neighbors to the south.  But then came a New York Times story reporting that the concessions Trump's play managed to produce had already been agreed to over the course of previous negotiations:

Mexico had already promised to take many of the actions agreed to in Friday's immigration deal with the US -- months before President Donald Trump's tariff threat, officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations told the New York Times in a story published Saturday...The Mexican government had pledged to deploy the National Guard nationwide with a focus on its southern border -- a key part of Friday's agreement -- during secret meetings in March between former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Mexican interior secretary Olga Sanchez in Miami, the officials told the Times. The deal's key expansion of a program that would keep asylum seekers in Mexico while their claims are processed was established in two heavily brokered two diplomatic notes exchanged between the two countries, the Times reported.

With the publication of this story, the narrative changed instantaneously -- from begrudging acknowledgement that perhaps Trump's risk had worked on some level, to giddy scorn.  He did all of this for nothing.  I continue to think that Trump's approach to trade policy is often wrongheaded and counterproductive, both for the US economy as a whole and for American consumers.  Going toe to toe with the Chinese, who've richly earned a tougher American posture, is one thing; leveling simultaneous threats and precipitating spats with allies fosters a sense of chaos and uncertainty that undermines the Trump administration's global reputation as a reliable negotiating partner.  US employers also prize certainty and stability as they plan hiring and business investments.  Relatedly, many analysts are linking the May jobs report miss with Trump's capricious approach to trade policy.  

All that being said, the notion that Trump's hardline ultimatum to Mexico accomplished nothing new is disproven in the very Times piece Trump critics are eagerly sharing as evidence of that flawed proposition.  As I noted on Media Buzz, the progress achieved in the newly-announced accord was buried in subsequent paragraphs.  The report notes that the Mexican government's "promise to deploy up to 6,000 national guard troops was larger than their previous pledge."  In May, Mexico only had approximately 1,000 troops assigned to this mission.  Even deeper into the story, readers learn that the Trump administration also persuaded Mexico to 'immediately' expand the 'remain in Mexico' asylum detention plan to span the entire border, on a much faster time line than they had previously committed to.  These are meaningful and new steps that the president forced.  It's fair to debate whether Trump's tactics were worth the payoff.  It's not fair to seize on the headline and opening sentences of the Times story in order to pretend that fresh policy payoffs don't exist at all.  Here's my Sunday segment making that point:


Meanwhile, while the border crisis may be somewhat mitigated as a result of this partial resolution, serious underlying problems remain.  As we covered over the weekend, a new government report recently revealed an ISIS plot to exploit our southern border insecurity by smuggling English-speaking terrorists onto US soil, underscoring one national security component of the wider illegal immigration challenge:  


Another issue is the degree to which migrants are incentivized by our laws to bring minors with them in their northward journey, resulting in a shocking spike in border apprehensions involving families and kids.  I've already made clear that I believe the president's policy response to this unfolding emergency has been deeply flawed at various points.  But what have House Democrats done?  They've passed a stand-alone DREAM Act that rewards illegal immigrants brought to America as young children with a special path to citizenship, including some who've racked up criminal records.  I'm fully in favor of a DREAM Act-style bill, but to advance this legislation under the current circumstances, paired with no enforcement mechanisms that would dissuade  and rebuff more of the same, is almost cartoonishly irresponsible.  A cynic might even posit that Democrats deliberately passed a measure that the Senate could never agree to, and that Trump could not sign, in order to generate a political talking point for 2020.  Are they interested in solving a problem, or for keeping a coalition-motivating issue alive in perpetuity?