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U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. Image Credit: Bloomberg

WASHINGTON: Abandoning his threat to immediately seal the southern border, President Donald Trump warned instead on Thursday that he’d slap tariffs on cars coming to the US from Mexico unless the Mexicans do more to stop the flow of migrants and drugs to the US.

In his latest backtrack in recent days, Trump told reporters he would try the “less drastic measure” before resorting to his standing border-closure threat.

“Mexico understands that we’re going to close the border or I’m going to tariff the cars. I’ll do one or the other. And probably start off with the tariffs,” Trump said. He added later: “I don’t think we’ll ever have to close the border because the penalty of tariffs on cars coming into the United States from Mexico, at 25 per cent, will be massive.”

It was the latest, seemingly sudden attempt at new leverage by a president struggling to solve what his administration has called a border “crisis.” And it was a dramatic departure for Trump, who last week tweeted that he would close the border or large swathes of it this week unless Mexico immediately halted “ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States” — a seemingly impossible task.

Trump said at the time that he was “not kidding around,” and his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said in a television interview Sunday that it would take “something dramatic” for Trump not to close down the crossings.

Since then, however, White House advisers, border city leaders and US economists have warned that such a move would have enormous economic consequences on both sides of the border, interrupting supply chains and boosting US consumer prices on everything from avocados to autos.

Trump in recent days has also backtracked on his push for Republicans to again take on health care and surprised his own education secretary by reversing a plan to axe federal aid for the Special Olympics.

Trump had already appeared to be easing off his border threat earlier this week. Though he said Tuesday all options remained on the table, he shifted his goalposts, calling on Congress to pass immigration legislation to avert a closure and praising the Mexican government for doing more to apprehend migrants travelling through the country from Central America — though it’s unclear anything has changed.

Trump has been increasingly exasperated at his inability to halt the swelling number of migrants entering the US, including thousands who have being released after arriving because border officials have no space for them. Arrests along the southern border have skyrocketed in recent months and border agents were on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry in March, a 12-year high. More than half of those are families with children, who require extra care.

The president’s “pretty frustrated,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who spoke with Trump this week and offered to work with the administration “to try to come up with some more targeted ideas,” including changes for remittances to Mexico. Trump suggested he work with the Treasury secretary on the idea, Cornyn said.

Trump has invoked other executive powers, including declaring a national emergency in an effort to secure more money for his long-promised border wall. Congress voted to block the emergency declaration, but Trump vetoed that measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats would file a lawsuit aimed at preventing Trump from “stealing” billions from federal programmes and diverting the money to building barriers along the border.