Kentucky Republicans usually loyal to Trump warn him on tariffs against Mexico

Kentucky Republicans have been among President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters. But they’re rattled by Trump’s talk of imposing tariffs on goods from Mexico — warning that it could hurt the auto industry, one of the state’s most important employers.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, whose Lexington-area district includes Toyota’s first wholly-owned American vehicle plant, said Thursday he told the White House that he opposes the tariffs. Toyota Motor Corp. warned its U.S. dealers earlier this week that the tariffs on Mexican imports could increase auto-parts costs by more than $1 billion, according to a letter obtained by Reuters.

“This new proposal is not good for Toyota,” said Barr. He said he told administration officials that increasing tariffs would not only disrupt the supply chain for auto makers, but threaten the viability of the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Trump’s revised trade pact with the U.S.’s two trading partners.

Barr said he argued that Trump’s efforts to prod Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants crossing into the United States deflects attention from congressional Democrats — who Barr said have opposed Trump’s efforts to secure the Southern border, chiefly by opposing his bid to build a wall.

“Really all that tariffs on Mexico is going to accomplish is to disrupt our supply chain,” Barr said. “The real problem is that the Democratic majority in Congress is not working with this administration to provide funding for border infrastructure and more border patrol agents.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has said there is “not much support” among Senate Republicans for Trump’s plan to impose a 5 percent tariff on all imports from Mexico until the country does more to curb illegal border crossings.

McConnell has told the White House that Trump should postpone the tariff hike planned for Monday until he’s made his case to congressional Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that Democrats want “to find comprehensive immigration reform that helps address the problem, have a humanitarian assistance at the border to help meet the needs of the people coming in and, again, not to be punishing Mexico because in punishing Mexico, we will be punishing America as well.”

Although House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, called on Republicans to be “united” in support for the tariffs, arguing it that doing otherwise “undercuts” Trump’s negotiating ability, Barr said he’d back legislation to block the tariff hike.

“As an ally of this administration and an obvious supporter of border security, I think I come to this with a lot of credibility, but in this case I have a disagreement and would encourage them to focus on the real solution,” Barr said. “They need to keep the pressure where it needs to be applied.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said in television interviews this week that he opposes the tariffs as “simply a tax on the American people” and warned that there could be enough Republican critics to block them.

He said he’d talked to Kentucky farmers who are worried and that there’s “gathering momentum” among farm state Republicans.

“There’s some danger to the president we could actually have a veto proof disapproval of any new tariffs,” he told Fox Business News. Republicans control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats. It would take 67 votes to override a presidential veto.

Republicans have long considered themselves free trade advocates. Their opposition comes as Republicans in other red-states have expressed opposition to the proposed tariffs, warning they could hurt farm states.

Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, said he remains a staunch supporter of Trump, but opposes the tariffs, which he said would hurt the many auto parts suppliers in his district. There are four major auto assembly plants in the state, employing nearly 95,000 people.

“We need to have some congressional debate before he does anything from a tariff standpoint,” Comer said.

He said he’s also worried that tariffs would hurt efforts to get the trade package approved.

“I certainly support border security and I’m very upset that Mexico’s not doing more to stop the flow of immigrants coming up from Central America, but we need to pass the USMCA, that’s our goal,” he said.

Said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, the dean of the delegation, as talks continued Thursday between U.S. and Mexico negotiators: “Like many, I am hopeful for a positive resolution to these conversations with Mexico that improves the dire situation at our border without negative consequences for our economy.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.