White House

Tim Scott predicts Trump is playing immigration hardball, won’t impose Mexico tariffs

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott isn’t getting worked up over President Donald Trump’s plans to impose steep tariffs on imported Mexican goods, even if his state of South Carolina could lose millions of dollars in the process.

That’s because the Republican doesn’t think the Trump administration will move forward with its threats, suggesting they were designed solely to force concessions on border security from the Mexican government.

“I’ve been watching this for the last 24 months pretty carefully, and it seems to me that we have grown accustomed to an unorthodox approach to the president’s negotiating,” Scott told McClatchy on Tuesday. “I think this is more negotiating than it is a threat of tariffs.”

Trump announced last week he intended to place tariffs on products imported from Mexico, starting at 5% and going up as high as 25%, depending on how long it takes the country to help the United States stem the tide of illegal immigration at the southern border.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study showed South Carolina would be the 16th hardest-hit state by the tariffs — it took in more than $3.5 billion in Mexican imports in 2018, and a 5% increase would result in losses of more than $192.7 million.

In recent comments to the local business community, S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts called these tariffs “the wrong tool to deal with the crisis at the border.”

And Mexico’s Ministry of the Economy reported that over 70,400 jobs in South Carolina depend on Mexican trade.

Scott said if Trump decides to implement the tariffs as planned on June 10, that could be a problem: “A higher cost of goods based on an immigration issue is a negative impact. That’s the obvious thing.

“But that’s not where we are yet,” he continued. “I’m not sure we’re going to get there.”

Scott also pointed out that it’s always possible Trump’s tactics work and Mexican officials do come to the table to discuss a compromise for how to handle the flood of migrants at the border.

His more stoic response Tuesday was, however, in stark contrast to that of many of his Republican colleagues.

As GOP senators raged over the potential developments — what the tariffs would mean for their states and whether the president’s hardball tactics could jeopardize broader negotiations on a new U.S. trade agreement with Mexico and Canada — Scott was initially reluctant to comment on the matter at all.

To a group of reporters on Capitol Hill, Scott explained it was a moot point to say whether he opposed Mexican tariffs because they hadn’t been formally implemented.

When reminded he has taken a position against auto tariffs prior to the Trump administration’s implementation — saying the president’s team was playing a game of “Russian Roulette” with South Carolina’s strong foreign car manufacturing economy — Scott conceded, “that’s a good point,” but declined to elaborate as the elevator doors closed between him and a large group of reporters.

Later, in a one-on-one interview with McClatchy, Scott explained he felt compelled to take a strong stance against automobile tariffs because “(Trump’s) team is convinced” that slapping tariffs on imported auto parts is in the interest of U.S. national security.

“I disagree with him on that position,” Scott said, as well as with the premise that “a BMW employee in Greer, South Carolina is a national security threat.”

Trump was set to implement the auto tariffs last month but delayed the decision for fact-finding purposes.

South Carolina’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, has also responded to Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexican products differently than many of his peers.

In 2017, when Trump first proposed the tariffs on Mexico as a way to force the country to pay for a border wall, Graham called it a “big-time bad idea.”

Since that time, Graham has become one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress. Now, of the same proposal, he tweeted, “I support President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Mexico until they up their game to help us with our border disaster.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.