Angry members of Congress told the US president he had abused executive power by invoking a national emergency over Mexico and demanded a rethink before it was too late. This was in Washington not last week but in January 1995.
What irked Capitol Hill then was Bill Clinton’s decision to bypass stiff congressional opposition and loan Mexico $20bn of American money to help pull its economy out of crisis.
The US-led bailout was part of a bipartisan diplomatic effort spanning almost three decades, beginning with the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement at the start of the 1990s. The aim was to overcome more than a century of mistrust and bring Mexico closer to its big northern neighbour as a trusted and prospering ally.
The policy produced results. By 2018, Mexico was the US’s third biggest trading partner, just behind Canada, with $678bn of business done between the two nations. US companies have $110bn invested in Mexico, around 1.5m Americans living there and more than 11m Mexican immigrants call the US home.
Donald Trump’s sudden and unexpected threat in an evening tweet on May 30 to impose punitive tariffs on all Mexican exports within 11 days marked a dramatic shift in that policy of rapprochement. The tariffs were to start at 5 per cent and rise each month to 25 per cent unless Mexico dramatically cut migration to the US border.
“Our chargé down there didn’t know whether to kill himself or jump off the building,” one former senior US official said, with a sigh. “There’s a growth of real disgust in Mexico at the way Trump is treating them.”
Mr Trump backed down just as suddenly on Friday night, less than three days before the tariffs were due to be imposed, saying Mexico had agreed “strong measures” to stem migration. The following day he tweeted: “Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!”
Experts on the US-Mexico relationship, however, cautioned that the damage caused by Mr Trump’s threat was likely to take longer to repair. One of the main casualties was business confidence, as companies realised that the certainty of permanent tariff-free trade — upon which some have built whole supply chains — was subject to presidential whim.
“He’s violated all the norms by applying pressure and threatening Mexico in this way,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank, speaking after Mr Trump’s initial announcement. “He’s completely ignored what Mexico is already doing on migration at some political cost.”
Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to the US, said Mr Trump’s tariff threat had caused the most serious crisis in US-Mexican relations since the mid-1980s, when Washington had closed the border after Mexican drug barons kidnapped, tortured and murdered an American anti-narcotics agent, Enrique Camarena.
“Trump has upended one of the basic tenets of the relationship since Nafta ratification,” said Mr Sarukhan. “In a relationship as complex as this one, you don’t contaminate one issue, such as migration, with another, such as trade. One of the fundamental principles is that you don’t create these linkages that contaminate the agenda as a whole.
“Trump was not seeking a deal; he was seeking a trophy”.
A big concern is that the threat of tariffs will return if Mexico’s enforcement action against Central American migrants crossing its territory towards the US proves inadequate.
A section of the US-Mexico joint declaration on Friday was titled “Further Action” and stated: “Both parties also agree that, in the event the measures adopted do not have the expected results, they will take further actions.”
Given that Mexico has pledged to step up enforcement of migration laws along its highly porous 871km southern border with Guatemala using a National Guard that is still being hired, experts say it is highly unlikely that the record surge in migration of families from Central America north will be halted quickly enough to satisfy Mr Trump.
Another risk is that the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, faces pressure from angry nationalists who believe he caved in to US demands too easily. “The sovereignty and dignity of Mexico have been damaged,” tweeted the head of the main conservative opposition party, Marko Cortés, after details of the agreement emerged.
Mr López Obrador is vulnerable. For all the economic benefits and improvements in relations that Nafta has brought, the lopsided nature of the relationship between the world’s biggest economy and a middle-ranking emerging market has endured.
“Mexico needs the United States but the United States doesn’t need Mexico, what do you say Mr President?” a journalist asked Mr López Obrador at a news conference on Friday.
The leftist Mexican leader responded only by smiling and holding up both hands making peace signs, adding: “I will keep my silence.”