Mexican officials to meet with Pence in last-ditch effort to avert tariffs

Vice President Pence on Wednesday will meet with top Mexican officials who are seeking to persuade the Trump administration to abandon plans to impose sweeping tariffs that leaders on both sides of the border warn could damage the continent’s economy.

Frustrated by increasing levels of illegal migration, an issue he pledged to address during the 2016 campaign, Trump suddenly announced last week he would slap a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods beginning on Monday, tariffs which could rise to 25 percent by October unless Mexico cracks down on illegal border crossings.

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Trump said Tuesday during a press conference in London that “it’s more likely that the tariffs go on” according to schedule, dimming hopes for a quick resolution during Wednesday’s meeting at the White House.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard plans to argue that his country has already taken steps to detain more migrants as well as other steps designed to prevent them from crossing into the U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack US-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack The US must do its part in closing the largest outdoor prison in the world MORE left Trump’s trip in Europe to attend the meeting in Washington. U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE is also expected to be in attendance. 

Ebrard told reporters Tuesday that the delegation's time in Washington had been spent preparing for the Wednesday meeting, which had been quickly convened with Pompeo over the weekend.

“What Mexico must do and we are doing is to prepare, and we have our strategy on how to coexist with what sometimes can be unpredictable," said Ebrard. “We can’t guarantee that in the future there won't be another sort of differences with the United States, but we have to be prepared to manage them.”

Trump, who decided with a small cadre of advisers to go ahead with the tariffs, has faced major blowback from Republican senators who say the tariffs could slow the U.S. economy and stymie progress on ratifying the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico.

Some GOP senators have warned the White House that it should not count on their support, as opposed to earlier this year when Trump declared a national emergency to circumvent Congress in order to obtain money for his long-promised border wall. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would disapprove of the tariffs and curb Trump’s ability to impose future import duties on his own.

“This would certainly give me great pause in terms of supporting that type of declaration to enact tariffs versus building the wall, which I completely supported,” Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach MORE (R-Wis.) told reporters on Tuesday. “Listen, Republicans don't like taxes on American consumers — what tariffs are.”

The Trump administration has been vague about what steps Mexico would need to take in order to prevent the tariffs from taking effect, adding further confusion to the situation.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who has pushed for the tariffs, said they might not need to take effect at all. 

“We believe that these tariffs may not have to go into effect precisely because we have the Mexicans' attention,” Navarro said on CNN. 

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told The Hill in an interview the administration wants to see Mexico help create a “vast reduction” in illegal crossings by tightening security on its border with Guatemala, expanding intelligence sharing with U.S. law enforcement agencies targeting criminal gangs and cracking down on migrants crossing its northern border with the U.S.

“He believes Mexico can do more to address this flow from Central America and that’s the No. 1 metric we are looking for,” McAleenan said of Trump. “We can’t have the situation where 1,000 people in one group can cross the border at 4 a.m. without any interdiction or without any effort to stop that unlawful activity.”

McAleenan was referring to the recent detention of more than 1,000 migrants at the crossing near El Paso, Texas, the largest number on record.

But those changes could take months, if not longer, to take effect. Acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw White House mulling restoring daily press briefing with Sanders replacement: report MORE said last week Mexico’s progress would be judged on an “ad hoc” basis.

In the meantime, many in Washington fear they might not have that long until the tariffs take a toll on the economy.

The private sector added just 27,000 jobs in May, according to a key study, a sign the president’s multifront trade war is beginning to have an effect. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Tuesday the central bank is “closely monitoring” the situation and indicated it could respond by slashing interest rates in order to prevent widespread damage.

The diplomatic and economic tensions could slow or stop progress toward the president’s NAFTA revision, which Pence has previously vowed that Congress would approve by this summer.

The trade pact was signed by the leaders of all three countries last year but must still be ratified by their legislatures. The U.S. and Mexican governments have both started the formal legislative process, but consideration could be delayed with the tariffs in place.

Mexico recently became the U.S.’s largest trading partner. Last year, the U.S. imported $346.5 billion in goods from Mexico, according to the U.S. trade representative. Automakers, agricultural companies and retailers are expected to be hit hardest by the duties that will be paid for by U.S. importers, which often pass along the cost to consumers.

Rafael Bernal contributed to this report, which was updated at 1:14 p.m.