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Former U.S. Ambassador To Mexico Discusses Trump's Tariff Plan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Urgent talks about the U.S. threat of tariffs continue. One set of talks took place today at the State Department between delegates from the U.S. and Mexico, another across town at the White House. Both the U.S. and Mexico say they are making progress, but the Trump administration says Mexico must do more to stop migrants heading for the U.S. border, or else companies in the U.S. will pay 5% tariffs on all imports starting Monday.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, among those arguing against the tariffs are former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico. Seven of them have written a letter; these are ambassadors who served both Democratic and Republican administrations. And their letter argues the tariffs would actually cripple Mexico's ability to tackle migration. John Negroponte is one of those seven. His long diplomatic career included a stint as ambassador to Mexico during the George H.W. Bush administration. And he is in the studio with us now. Welcome, Ambassador.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

KELLY: So the letter that y'all have signed argues that tariffs not only wouldn't solve the challenges at the border but would make things worse. How so?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think the main way they would make things worse is one can imagine a series of knock-on effects from a 5% tariff and certainly from a 25% tariff...

KELLY: Which is what the president has said they'll escalate to.

NEGROPONTE: ...Exactly - which they would roll up to that - in terms of Mexico's ability to export to the United States. So it would be a serious setback, both in terms of the volume of exports, likely, and possibly over the longer term - medium or longer term, the willingness of people to invest in Mexico. So that creates declining income, which therefore create - reduces the capacity of Mexico to mobilize the necessary governmental resources to deal with these very difficult issues. The poorer you are, the harder it is to cope with this kind of situation.

KELLY: You're arguing that tariffs would hurt the economy both in the U.S. and Mexico. And if you hurt Mexico's economy, it would hurt their ability to grapple with migrants...

NEGROPONTE: Correct.

KELLY: ...The incoming flow.

NEGROPONTE: Yes, indeed.

KELLY: You also argue that just, in principle, linking immigration and trade is a really bad idea. Why? What's the risk?

NEGROPONTE: Well, we ask - we suggest that these two issues should be decoupled - that they're not directly related, although we can understand that there might be some kind of indirect relationship. But trade is trade. It's something we've negotiated with the Mexicans and other countries over the years. And immigration, per se, has never been on the same agenda. They've never been the subject of trade talks. And so the idea that you make it some kind of a quid pro quo - explicit quid pro quo, we think, is a mistake.

Now, should Mexico deal with the migration issue? Should this be a subject of discussion between us - by all means. In fact, it should be a subject for cooperation, not a subject for penalizing Mexico. And by that, I mean there are cooperative things we can do both at our own border but, equally importantly, down at the border between Mexico and Guatemala where we could probably join forces to try to improve the situation on that border, improve the enforcement situation and possibly even the economic situation in Central America to try to attack the root causes of the problem.

KELLY: The root causes - although is it possible that President Trump's negotiating style, while unorthodox, may yield some results here - if it yields some increased effort on the part of Mexico to staunch what the Trump administration says is a crisis, is an emergency?

NEGROPONTE: Well, you know, that is to be hoped. And I would dearly love for this to produce some kind of quick short-term solution before we have to actually pull the trigger on the tariffs. But let's say, for example, that the tariffs go into effect, and you have 5%. Everybody sort of grumbles and grouses. But by the time you get up to 25%, that's real hurt for - on both sides of the border. All you have to do is listen to what the senators and the congressional representatives from the border states are saying. Texas is going to face huge economic penalties if these...

KELLY: Including Republicans in the president's party who've come out...

NEGROPONTE: Both Republican senators of Texas, right.

KELLY: I mean, let me ask you just because you have the long view on Washington.

NEGROPONTE: Yeah.

KELLY: You've served how many presidents over your career?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I mean, I joined the Foreign Service at the very end of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. I was a junior officer in the Foreign Service.

KELLY: So you have the long view, as I said. Do you see a strategy underpinning the president's tactics here?

NEGROPONTE: Well, if you say reduce the merchandise trade deficit, I would say that is what he says - states is the strategy. But a lot of people will tell you, including such respected statesmen and economists as George P. Shultz, that it's really a question of arithmetic, and if you consume more than you produce, you're going to have a deficit. Basically (laughter), your deficit is going to be the difference between what you actually consume and what you can produce. So if it doesn't come out of the trade relationship with Mexico, it's going to pop up somewhere else.

KELLY: And that's...

NEGROPONTE: It's like squeezing a toothpaste tube.

KELLY: Squeezing a toothpaste tube - we will leave us with that analogy. John Negroponte, thank you. He's the former director of national intelligence and also one of the former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico.

Thanks for coming by.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.