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News Brief: Mexico Tariffs, Census Hearing, Candidates And Big Business


There is a meeting today at the White house. It's aimed at preventing what top Republican lawmakers are calling, quote, "a terrible mistake."


Yeah. Mexico's foreign minister will make the case against tariffs. President Trump, as you may recall, promised steadily increasing taxes on everything that Americans buy from Mexico. Trump said yesterday he's moving forward, even though members of his own party seem to agree with Mexico. Republicans opposed to these tariffs include Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is quoted by the Financial Times saying, "we're holding a gun to our own heads." This is also the case made by Mexican trade negotiator Antonio Ortiz-Mena.


ANTONIO ORTIZ-MENA: It would be joint pain. It wouldn't be just Mexico pain. The U.S. would be hurting both countries.

INSKEEP: That leads to a question - how far will Republicans go to block a president for whom they've voiced concern many times without acting?

KING: NPR's chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley is on the line.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So you heard all of that - Republicans are not happy about this, about these tariffs, and yet the president is keeping a hard line, or appears to be.

HORSLEY: That's right. The president's been frustrated with the large number of migrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. More than 100,000 border-crossers were apprehended both in March and in April. Many of these are families coming from Central America, but they are coming through Mexico, and the president wants the Mexican government to do more to stop them. To underscore that message, Trump has ordered a tariff or tax of 5% on everything the U.S. buys from Mexico, starting Monday, and he's warned that unless Mexico does crack down on the migrants, those tariffs will steadily ratchet up.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And every month, those tariffs go from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20 and then to 25%, and what will happen, then, is all of those companies that have left our country and gone to Mexico are going to be coming back to us, and that's OK.

KING: All right. That is a big claim that the president is making there. Let's start out simply - if these tariffs are put in place on Mexican imports, who's going to feel them?

HORSLEY: It's going to be widespread. The U.S. bought $347 billion worth of stuff from Mexico last year, so the tab in June alone would be about $1 billion.

KING: Wow.

HORSLEY: Car parts are a big category that would be affected. The North American auto industry is heavily integrated. We also buy a lot of electronics from Mexico. Fruits and vegetables, especially in the wintertime but actually year-round. And of course, U.S. exporters would also feel the pain if Mexico retaliates. Mexico has been a big buyer of corn, hogs, American cheese. They just lifted tariffs on those goods less than three weeks ago, and here we go again.

KING: So what is Mexico saying about this threat?

HORSLEY: For the moment, Mexico is trying to be diplomatic. Their foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, offered a more upbeat projection than the president about the prospects for avoiding tariffs. He told reporters he thinks the odds are in favor of a deal being struck.


MARCELO EBRARD: I think that we have 80% in favor of negotiation, 20% that maybe is difficult to reach an agreement.

HORSLEY: Mexico has stepped up its efforts to deport Central American migrants, although it's not doing near as much as the president would like.

KING: And Scott, could Republicans, given their opposition to this, just go ahead and block the president's tariffs?

HORSLEY: They could vote to reject the tariffs, but they haven't shown much appetite for that sort of frontal opposition to the president. Their other leverage might be withholding their support for the new NAFTA that the president wants. They have used that in the past to get the president to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum, so that's another tactic they might employ here.

KING: They do have some leverage. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.


KING: All right. What evidence shows the motive behind a new question in the U.S. census?

INSKEEP: A court hearing in New York today involves that evidence. The Trump administration wants to add this question to the 2020 census, which is coming right up, asking if the person being counted is a United States citizen. The administration has rejected suspicions of any political motive behind the question, but lawyers recently learned about documents that once belonged to a Republican strategist. The strategist died last year and left behind a plan to push the citizenship question in a way that would give political advantage to, quote, "Republicans and non-Hispanic whites."

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been all over this story. He joins us from our New York bureau.

Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So remind us how this citizenship question ended up in the courts in the first place?

WANG: This is a question that asks specifically, is this person a citizen of the United States? And it's long been known to be a kind of very sensitive question amongst Census Bureau officials. Census researchers actually have research that shows that it's highly likely to scare households with noncitizens from participating, and so multiple states, cities and other groups sued to get this question blocked from the census form. Three judges have ruled so far to block it, and the New York ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, when we're waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court by the end of the month, likely.

KING: All right. So the Supreme Court is reviewing this, and now you have a lower court in New York holding a hearing about this today because of these new documents, this new evidence. Explain what that is.

WANG: These are documents that belonged to Thomas Hofeller. He was a major, major Republican strategist involved in redistricting around the country. And these documents were discovered after the trial over the citizenship question was held in New York, after the Supreme Court hearing. Hofeller's estranged daughter came across these hard drives. And the lawyers with the citizenship question lawsuits in New York, one of them found these documents, and they're arguing that these documents show that a Justice Department official and an adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, that these officials may have lied or provided misleading testimony for these lawsuits.

And they're - plaintiffs arguing this is evidence of a possible cover-up for the real reason for this citizenship question. The administration has said this is about protecting the voting rights of racial minorities. That's why they want to add a citizenship question. But these documents from Thomas Hofeller, the plaintiffs argue, show that he was involved in early drafts of requests for this question and that he had this strategy to redraw political (ph) maps to benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people.

KING: This is playing out like a thriller, Hansi. You're going to go to court today for this hearing. What are you going to be looking for?

WANG: It's really going to be interesting to see what this federal judge in New York - U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman - what he does so late in the game now that the trial's over. He's already made his ruling. The plaintiffs really want him to consider requiring the government, the Trump administration, to release more documents and possibly require more officials to sit down for depositions for it to question under oath, in order to answer exactly what quite possibly was Hofeller's role in the citizenship question and what exactly did the administration want with the citizenship question.

And you know, I won't be the only one watching. A lot of lawyers will be watching around the country involved in other citizenship question lawsuits, as well as the Supreme Court justices, who have not announced their ruling on this question.

KING: I mean, the stakes are pretty high here, timing-wise, Hansi - right? - because the 2020 census is happening in 2020.

WANG: And we have less than a month until the Census Bureau says the printing of the 2020 census forms have to start by July 1, and it's a very tight deadline here.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome.


KING: OK. So you may remember that Elizabeth Warren has talked about breaking up Facebook and Amazon.

INSKEEP: Kamala Harris has called out McDonald's for paying workers low wages. And today, Bernie Sanders, who co-authored a bill called The Stop Walmart Act, is taking his message directly to a Walmart shareholders meeting. What is driving presidential candidates to call out individual companies for what they see as bad behavior?

KING: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is covering the 2020 campaign. She's with us in studio.

Good morning, Danielle.


KING: So I saw your reporting, and the first thing I thought was, why is Bernie Sanders allowed to go to a Walmart shareholders meeting in the first place, to lecture them, presumably?

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) That's a really excellent question because, yeah, I asked his campaign and he does not own Walmart stock.


KURTZLEBEN: But what he is doing is he's going to be on - he's going to be there on behalf of a woman named Cat Davis. She is a Walmart worker. She has been for 11 years. She's also the leader of a group called United for Respect. She's a leader of that group, and that's a group that is demanding worker's rights. They, you know, often put - they sometimes put forward these sorts of proposals asking for better treatment for workers at Walmart. So she has said, Bernie Sanders is my representative today, so he will be there on her behalf. And he's presenting a proposal that would require Walmart leadership to consider Walmart workers, hourly workers, as board members.

And by the way, this proposal just so happens to nicely dovetail with the policy he is reportedly working on, according to The Washington Post, to require corporations to give workers seats on their boards. By the way, that's policy that Elizabeth Warren has pushed something similar as well. Now, speaking last week, Bernie Sanders said he had a sort of preview of his remarks to Walmart shareholders.


BERNIE SANDERS: So my message to the Walton family is, we are sick and tired of subsidizing you. Pay your workers a living wage.


KURTZLEBEN: So he's advocating getting workers on the board, but he has for a while had some other complaints, like pay at Walmarts as something he's upset about.

KING: I mean, this is a presidential candidate calling out, targeting a specific company. How unusual is that?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so I asked a couple of consultants, I asked a historian, and they agreed, you know, there is something new about this kind of specific company criticism being so loud, so mainstream, relatively widespread. I mean, Hillary Clinton didn't really do this much in 2016, for example.

But yeah, it seems to be proliferating this year. You have Sanders with The Stop Walmart Act that Steve mentioned. He has a Stop Bezos Act sort of pointedly aimed at Amazon. Elizabeth Warren has her plan to break up big tech, and she name-checked Amazon, Google and Facebook. You have all of these candidates who have shown up at strikes at Stop & Shop grocery stores, at McDonald's. So yeah, this has become a thing in this field of candidates.

KING: And why are candidates doing this? They must be gaming this out and thinking, I can work this to my advantage. How so?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, I mean, so leaving aside that you do have people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have been advocating for, you know, workers' rights, consumer rights...

KING: Long time, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...For a while, yeah. So there is some sincerity here, but - so let's not be totally cynical (laughter). But aside from that, you know, this is the sort of thing that allows - that candidates use because voters can see the concreteness of their policies in it. Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, but it might make more sense to a voter to see it in the company of Walmart or to try to see it in the company of Walmart. Besides that, a big, splashy policy proposal or, for example, standing up at the Walmart shareholders meeting, it just so happens to be the sort of thing that might grab attention and get you more voters to look at you.

KING: Seems like it certainly will. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you, Noel.

KING: And we should add that Walmart, Facebook, Amazon and Google are among NPR's financial sponsors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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