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Trump teases tariff deal as Democrats accuse him of bluffing

White House

White House officials noted that Trump has grown sensitive to accusations that he’s not serious about imposing tariffs on Mexico over immigration.

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President Donald Trump is barreling toward an epic clash with members of his own party as he prepares to hit Mexico with escalating tariffs that could damage the U.S. economy — but as a Monday deadline neared, he and his aides teased the prospect of a last-minute deal.

Trump has repeatedly rebuffed efforts by Senate Republicans to persuade him to back down. He’s publicly said he’s serious about the tariffs, and suggested Tuesday that he expects them to go into effect, even as Democrats chided the president over what they saw as bluff meant to change the news cycle. And White House aides said privately this week they believe the tariffs are a foregone conclusion, barring a dramatic gesture from Mexican officials.

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Yet on Wednesday, the president expressed optimism that Mexico will take steps to address the crisis at the border.

“The drugs that are coming in. The people that are coming in they are swamping the border. They are coming up by the millions. Mexico can stop it,” Trump said during his trip to Europe, adding, “I think they will stop it. I think they want to do something. I think they want to make a deal and they sent their top people to try to do it.”

Earlier Wednesday, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro also suggested a deal averting the tariffs is possible. “We believe that these tariffs may not have to go into effect precisely because we have the Mexicans’ attention,” he said during an interview with CNN.

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior administration officials are meeting at the White House on Wednesday afternoon with top Mexican officials, who will make a last-ditch pitch to avert the tariffs.

White House officials have laid out three criteria for avoiding the tariffs: stopping Central American immigrants from crossing into Mexico from Guatemala; breaking up the transnational gangs that profit from the illegal immigrant trade; and keeping asylum seekers on their side of the border. It remains unclear how the Mexican government could satisfy those requirements before Monday, when the 5 percent across-the-board tariff on all Mexican imports is scheduled to go into effect.

Despite the insistence of White House officials that Trump is “deadly serious” about the tariffs, some opponents of the idea are still quietly holding out hope that the president will back down, noting that he’s publicly backtracked before.

The self-proclaimed master deal-maker has a long history of bluffing his way through the business world, and he’s brought that same style to Washington, infuriating fellow Republicans and other allies who don’t know when to take the president seriously.

Mexican officials, for their part, remain optimistic. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard put the chances of persuading the administration to hold off on the tariffs at 80 percent. He said he’ll make the case at Wednesday’s meeting that the Mexican government is already taking steps to stem the flow of migrants into the U.S.

White House officials are sensitive to accusations that Trump never intended to go through with the tariffs. They maintain that he remains willing to impose them if Mexico doesn’t show significant progress in addressing the president’s concerns. “There’s no way he’s bluffing,” a White House official told POLITICO Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have taunted Trump this week, suggesting he won’t go forward with his threats.

“Can you imagine Cryin’ Chuck Schumer saying out loud, for all to hear, that I am bluffing with respect to putting Tariffs on Mexico. What a Creep,” Trump shot back on Twitter on Tuesday night from Europe.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Schumer again predicted that Trump would back down, perhaps as soon as this afternoon. “And when he does, I would urge him to consider a real solution to the border problem, not some fake solution that he and the Mexicans announce and then it does nothing,” he said.

Pelosi said that Trump’s tariff push is meant to divert attention from special counsel Robert Mueller’s news conference, during which Mueller pointedly declined to exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice allegations.

“I don’t even think it rises to the level of policy,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s a distraction from the Mueller report. And it’s served its purpose, right? Here we are.”

The tariffs would start off at 5 percent on Monday and increase on a monthly basis up to 25 percent. Experts have warned that the levies could dramatically damage the U.S. economy, which relies on Mexico for everything from car parts to avocados.

Some in the White House expect the first tranche of tariffs to go into effect next week, after which the U.S. and Mexico will continue negotiating to find a way to lift the tariffs before they increase.

Trump’s tariff plan faced resistance from some of his advisers, including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who expressed concern about how the move could derail efforts to persuade Congress to approve a new North American trade deal, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Mexican tariffs are being driven by the president and hard-line aides working on the immigration issue, including senior adviser Stephen Miller, with economic and trade officials taking a secondary role, people close to the matter said.

But the internal debate about the tariffs paled in comparison to earlier trade debates in the White House, which often degenerated into shouting matches between Trump’s protectionist and free-trade advisers. These days, Trump is surrounded by fewer senior advisers who are willing to aggressively challenge his instincts, and aides said they are resigned to the president moving forward.

White House officials are also deeply skeptical that Republicans in Congress will band together to block the tariffs, as some GOP lawmakers have threatened to do. For one thing, the White House has argued privately that the tariffs don’t require a new national emergency declaration, as many trade experts believe. Such a move would allow Congress to pass a disapproval resolution, undermining the tariffs. Trump previously employed the national emergency tactic to try and divert funds for his southern border wall, and he was forced to veto a formal congressional rebuke.

And even if lawmakers are able to pass a similar resolution this time, White House officials doubt lawmakers could muster enough votes to reach a veto-proof threshold, despite warnings from some lawmakers that that’s a possibility.

Even Pelosi on Wednesday said she wasn’t sure Congress had the votes to override a Trump veto, noting that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had said he would stick with the president on the subject.

“I don’t think they will do that,” Trump said Tuesday as he reminded lawmakers that he remains popular among Republican voters, adding, “If they do, it’s foolish. There’s nothing more important than borders.”

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