The strategies used by US president Donald Trump over the last few weeks to force Mexico to do more to prevent Central American migrants from reaching US soil were—taken together—a classic example of Trumpian manipulation.
The process goes a little something like this: Make a loud and dubious threat, claim victory without evidence, withdraw the threat, and then incite the media and elected US officials—left against right—to debate whether or not the president succeeded.
Let’s break it down.
Speak loudly, carry a tiny stick
Central to Trump’s campaign for president was his promise to force Mexico to build a wall to put an end to illegal immigration. He has relentlessly pursued a crackdown on immigration to the United States ever since, often demonizing immigrants in the process.
His latest gambit was to threaten Mexico with import tariffs unless the country did more to stop asylum-seekers from Central America from reaching the United States. Trump announced this—rather loudly and suddenly—on Twitter at the end of May.
The plan didn’t make a lot of economic sense. If implemented, the tax would have cost Texas alone more than $5 billion a year. Even leading Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, opposed the idea. So did the president’s own trade adviser.
The whole thing seemed absurd. An official at the US Chamber of Congress said implementing the tariff at the proposed deadline of June 10 wasn’t even really possible, or would at the least be a logistical nightmare. It would have taken weeks or month to set up systems to collect the money.
This was clearly a dubious threat. Yet everyone took it seriously, including the Mexican government, which quickly sent negotiators to Washington.
The strategy of ‘speaking loudly’ and “carrying a tiny stick” has been a hallmark of the Trump presidency so far.
In a contrast to president Theodore Roosevelt’s famous mantra of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Trump has repeatedly insulted, harangued, and threatened foreign leaders. He has often backed down on his fiercest threats after they proved impossible to carry out. (There have been some exceptions, including his trade war with China and his imposition of tariffs on steel imports.)
Backtrack and declare victory
On June 7, days before Trump promised to implement the tariffs, the US State Department announced it had struck a “deal” with Mexican negotiators. Trump claimed victory. Washington, DC has been arguing about what it all really means ever since.
The State Department said Mexico would take “unprecedented steps” to stem the migrant tide. Among those steps would be increased police presence across the country and an expansion of an earlier agreement that would require immigrants arriving in the United States from Mexico to be sent back to Mexico and held there until US authorities get around to processing their cases.
But Mexico had already agreed last July to create a new border patrol force to contain immigration across the country. And on the ground, there has been no expansion of an agreement to process migrants from Mexico.
In fact, very little of what Mexico agreed to on June 7 hadn’t already been agreed to long ago. And Mexico did not agree to a key US demand: That Mexico sign the so-called “safe third country” accord. This agreement would require migrants seeking asylum—many of the migrants coming from Central America are fleeing violence—to apply in the first safe country they enter, which in most cases would be Mexico.
Trump claimed there was some ‘secret agreement” that makes the whole deal even sweeter. But Mexican officials don’t seem to know what he’s talking about.
The paper, eagle-eyed reporters noted, included a pledge to take a “a regional approach to burden-sharing in relation to the processing of refugee status claims to migrants.” Again, that’s something that Mexican officials had already announced.
In the end, Trump seems to have failed to strike a deal, backtracked on his threat to lift tariffs, and still claimed victory.
It’s a familiar pattern. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea in 2017, held an inconclusive summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, and has called it a victory ever since. The NAFTA negotiations with Canada and Mexico followed a similar pattern, as did Trump’s behavior after the government shutdown.
Manipulate the media
After nearly three years, Washington DC journalists and the city’s teeming think tanks are still uncertain how to handle the president’s half-truths, manipulations, and outright lies. It’s a situation that Trump and his advisers have skillfully turned to their advantage.
This recent drama with Mexico is a perfect example.
Some news outlets, including the New York Times and Politico, reported in the following days that Mexico had made many of these pledges before. They relied on anonymous sources, rather than publicly-available interviews by Mexican or US officials themselves. Trump seized on this, declaring the Times’ anonymously-sourced criticism of his deal “false.”
By the time the Sunday morning news talk shows rolled around, the focus was on Trump’s battle with the New York Times and how the media covered the negotiations. Few talked about what was discussed with Mexican negotiators, the outcome of the negotiations, or the impact any of it would have or not have on immigrants. Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan asked Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican, whether the main points of the deal were already agreed to long before Trump’s threats. “I don’t know that they were. No deal is done until it’s done and announced,” Blunt said. He wasn’t challenged.
“The media coverage over the alleged Trump ‘deal’ with Mexico over the last few days has been an absolute abomination,” Judd Legum, the author of political newsletter Popular Information and former editor of ThinkProgress, wrote on Twitter.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, appears to have borrowed Trump’s playbook. In the aftermath of the whole spectacle, he declared the lifting of never-imposed tariffs a major victory for Mexico. He then celebrated at a political rally in Tijuana.