WASHINGTON — In a surprise announcement that could compromise a major trade deal, President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is slapping a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports to pressure the country to do more to crack down on the surge of Central American migrants trying to cross the border.
He said on Twitter that the percentage will gradually increase "until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied." Earlier Thursday, Trump told reporters he was planning "a major statement" that would be his "biggest" so far on the border.
On another topic, Trump also on Thursday angrily assailed special counsel Robert Mueller's motives, a day after Mueller bluntly rebuffed the president's repeated claims that the Russia investigation had cleared him of obstructing justice.
The president offered mixed messages on Russia's efforts to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. Early in the day, Trump tweeted he had "nothing to do with Russia helping me get elected." That was the first time he seemed to acknowledge that Russia tried to help his campaign. Then on the White House South Lawn, Trump told reporters: "Russia did not help me get elected. You know who got me elected? You know who got me elected? I got me elected. Russia didn't help me at all."
Mueller's report said Russia interfered in the election in hopes of getting Trump elected, but his findings and intelligence officials have stopped short of saying the efforts contributed to Trump's victory.
Regarding immigration, Trump tweeted, "On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied," he wrote, "at which time the Tariffs will be removed."
Trump has accused the Mexican government of failing to do enough to crack down on the surge of Central American migrants who have been flowing to the U.S in search of asylum.
In Mexico, Mexican authorities have been carrying out migrant raids and detaining thousands more who are traveling through the country on the way to the U.S.
The crumbling city of Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, has become the epicenter of the crackdowns. Thousands of migrants have been stranded in the city because the Mexican government isn't providing them visas that allow them to travel. Authorities this week have been clearing out parks of camping migrants and raiding hotels where immigrants were staying.
Mexican authorities raided and largely broke up the last major migrant caravan, detaining hundreds of immigrants from Central America.
The White House said Trump would be using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to implement the tariff.
"If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the Tariffs will be removed," the White House said in a statement.
But if Trump is not satisfied, the 5% figure will increase to 10% on July 1, to 15% on Aug. 1, to 20% on Sept. 1 and to 25% on Oct. 1, the White House said.
Trump's announcement comes as the administration has been pushing for passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that would update the North American Free Trade Agreement. During a visit to Canada on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence vowed it would be passed this year.
"Our administration is working earnestly with leaders in the Congress of the United States to approve the USMCA this summer," he said.
Asked by reporters about the new tariff consideration, Pence said that both Mexico and Congress need to do more and that Trump is determined to use his authority to call on them to do so.