Trump shifts on border shutdown threat

President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE on Tuesday appeared to pull back from his threat to close the U.S. southern border this week as his administration struggles with how to stop an influx of Central American migrants from entering the country.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office he would shutter the border if he cannot reach a deal with Congress to pass stricter immigration laws, a retreat of sorts from his threat last Friday to close all or part of the frontier unless Mexico stops migrants from crossing.

The president offered a vague answer when asked if he intends to close the border, saying, “I haven’t made that intention known. And I’m ready to close it if I have to close it.”

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Trump’s comments also keep open the possibility of closing the border at some time in the future, but he was unclear about the criteria that would trigger the move.

The president said his decision will depend on whether Mexico continues apprehending migrants crossing its borders from Central America en route to the U.S. After criticizing the Mexican government’s efforts last week, he said on Tuesday the country is now “stopping people coming in.”

Whether Congress agrees to pass stricter immigration laws will also factor into the decision, Trump said. Lawmakers last year rejected a bipartisan immigration package and action seems even less likely this year with Democrats in control of the House.

"If we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed. 100 percent,” Trump said.

The president did not give a clear indication about whether both conditions would need to be met in order to stop a border closure, saying “you could say and/or.”

Trump’s latest comments came amid urgent warnings from Republicans and Democrats in Congress and business groups, who say that closing the border would strike a major blow to the U.S. economy.

“Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope we would not be doing that sort of thing,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGrassley, Wyden reach deal to lower drug prices The Hill's Morning Report — Trump applauds two-year budget deal with 0 billion spending hike Harris, Nadler introduce bill to decriminalize marijuana MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday.

But Trump suggested he is unbowed by fears about the economic effects of closing the border, even as he acknowledged the move would “have a negative impact on the economy.”

“Security is more important to me than trade,” he said. “So we’re going to have a strong border, or we’re going to have a closed border.”

Still, the Trump administration on Tuesday appeared to recognize the blowback it might face if a border closure were to wreak havoc on the economy.

Top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the White House is looking for ways to minimize the impact of a possible shutdown, saying they were considering how to keep trucking lanes open in order to maintain major supply chains.

“The question is: can we deal with that and not have any economic damage? And I think the answer is we can and people are looking at different options,” Kudlow told CNBC.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers has also begun studying the effects of a border shutdown, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

The U.S. and Mexico exchange more than $1.7 billion in goods and services daily and each day more than half a million legal workers, students, tourists and shoppers cross the border, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, said Tuesday that closing the border would be “destructive to the U.S. economy” and added the group has “expressed our concern about closing the border” directly to White House officials.

Sanders signaled earlier Tuesday that a border closure may not happen this week, saying the president is “not working on a specific timeline” and that all options were being considered.

Just four days ago, Trump was definitive about his plan to shut down the border quickly.

“We’ll keep it closed for a long time. I’m not playing games,” he said.

He expressed frustration at the time about Mexico’s efforts to catch the growing numbers of migrants heading for the U.S., many of whom are released from custody because of a complex legal framework and lack of detention space.

In the meantime, the administration was scrambling to shore up an immigration system that officials have said has reached a “breaking point” due to the thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied minors showing up on a daily basis.

Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer Four heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities MORE is reportedly cutting short an overseas trip in order to travel to the border on Wednesday.

DHS has already ordered a “surge” of 750 Customs and Border Protection officers to areas of the border where migrants are crossing in large numbers, while considering expanding the assignment to include 2,000 officers.

But a staff reshuffle that significant could lead to long lines for vehicles and pedestrians at legal ports of entry.

Trump also defended his administration’s decision to slash aid to Central American countries that had been credited by some groups with reducing the number of migrants who illegally enter the U.S.

“They don’t do anything for us,” Trump said of the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, adding that, “We’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars to these three countries” but that they have been “taking advantage of the United States for years.”

Updated at 4:28 p.m.