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How Trump’s Mexico tariffs could scare Democrats away from his trade deal

Rep. Ron Kind told POLITICO that he feels U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is out of the loop in terms of President Donald Trump’s trade intentions. | Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

President Donald Trump’s signature trade deal is in jeopardy with Democrats thanks to his latest tariffs against Mexico and other aggressive trade moves.

A very tight time window for the United-States-Canada-Mexico pact is closing, giving him long odds for a win this year on one of his few legislative priorities that could attract Democratic support.

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“We don’t see how it makes getting USMCA done any easier,” a Democratic leadership aide said Friday. “In fact, it suggests that Trump doesn’t care about USMCA at all, since he clearly doesn’t feel bound by its provisions and doesn’t care if actions like these could blow it up,”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had already been telling people she thought she could get her caucus to a yes on the trade deal, but only if the Trump administration worked through Democrats’ concerns about enforcement provisions, pharmaceutical pricing and labor and environmental rules. Until this week, Trump appeared willing to wait for Pelosi to signal readiness before sending Congress the pact for a vote.

But Trump exploded that goodwill in the space of a few hours Thursday, first by taking a formal step toward starting the clock for Congress to consider the pact, then by threatening to slap tariffs on Mexican goods unless America’s southern neighbor does more to stem the flow of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

House Democratic leaders see the moves as just one more way the administration has contributed to the chaos of its own trade policy in recent weeks and believe it could further antagonize rank-and-file Democrats who are on the fence about the USMCA in the first place.

“There is a path, but it gets narrower every time there’s a breach of trust,” a Democratic congressional aide told POLITICO on Friday.

With 28 legislative days before summer recess, the Trump administration is already facing a narrow window to reach a deal with Democrats. And getting the trade agreement passed only gets harder after recess with 2020 campaigns ramping up.

Trump’s trade chief Robert Lighthizer and Pelosi have been working to reach a compromise, with the two sides agreeing to set up working groups on the issues concerning Democrats. But those task forces have yet to be assembled and Trump’s decision on Thursday to formally set in motion the process of sending up the USMCA for a vote raised alarm among Democrats who felt it was a premature pressure tactic.

Pelosi panned the move and the Mexico tariffs in a statement Friday.

“We hope that the President will join us in bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, be strategic about our trade relationships and recognize the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” she said. “Yet again, the President is sowing chaos over the border instead of delivering solutions for American workers and for American consumers.”

Chuck Grassley

Lighthizer is expected to be on Capitol Hill next week working with party leaders in both chambers to iron out any outstanding concerns on USMCA. But some Democratic lawmakers are worried that their efforts to work with Lighthizer are futile if the president has a separate agenda.

It feels as if Lighthizer “is out of the loop and we’re wasting our breath when this president is going to do whatever he wants to do,” Rep.Ron Kind (D-Wis.) told POLITICO.

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, had felt emboldened in recent weeks after the administration removed steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada and Mexico — something many had warned were a major obstacle to the deal’s passage. The new tariffs on Mexico provoked a barrage of criticism from Republican senators, particularly those from farm and border states.

Some Democrats are particularly worried that Trump’s surprise move could further rattle members who were already anxious about the recent whiplash on tariffs.

“It’s incredibly foolish and poor timing,” Kind said. “We just ended the trade war with Mexico and Canada only to have a new tariff threat. With tariffs in place, it’s hard to move forward on USMCA.”

While the latest steps have ramped up tension in an already fraught negotiation, Democrats and Republicans alike maintain there is some possibility of the deal moving forward.

So far, Pelosi and her deputies are not altering plans to move ahead with the caucus’ working groups to help “try to get to a yes,” according to one senior Democratic aide.

“It certainly doesn’t help but I don’t think it scrambles the path,” the aide said. “It creates uncertainty and it creates a little bit more friction but there’s still a path to yes.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — whose district is along the southern border and includes the nation’s largest trading port — has been one of the Democratic party’s most vocal proponents of the deal.

The Texas Democrat was so alarmed by Trump’s actions that he called White House officials at 10 p.m. Thursday night to plead with them to reverse the tariffs decision.

“I said, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?” Cuellar recalled in an interview Friday, adding that he’s already fielded phone calls from U.S. companies in his district panicking about the move. “If the goal is to get Congress to approve NAFTA 2.0, this is absolutely contrary and counterproductive.”

Donald Trump

It remains unclear what will happen on USMCA while Trump is threatening tariffs, which would take effect June 10 if Mexico doesn’t find a way to stem migration. The threat alone is likely to slow the pact’s approval in Mexico. Before Trump announced his tariff threat on Thursday, Mexican officials had moved to start the USMCA ratification process in Mexico’s Senate.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday that he remains committed to pushing for passage of the deal. But former Mexican officials say any new tariffs would make it more difficult — especially in the face of Trump’s continuous attacks on Mexico.

“It’s hard to believe the U.S. would actually go through with this. It’s contrary to the spirit of what we’ve been trying to build to get USMCA ratified in the three countries,” Kenneth Smith Ramos, Mexico’s former chief NAFTA negotiator, told POLITICO. “It’s clear the impact would be seriously off the charts.”

There also is little incentive for Mexico to pass a trade deal aimed at eliminating tariffs when the Trump administration feels it can still impose duties against the country even with an agreement in place, another former Mexican official closely involved in trade issues said.

“The fact is there are plenty of things that easily can derail the process,” the official said. “And even if all of those things line up, there will still be people asking, ‘What is the point of all of this?’”

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