WASHINGTON - Updated at 6:00PM EDT
President Donald Trump spent a second day railing against Guatemala and threatening retribution even as the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security praised the Central American nation for what he said was cooperation to tighten immigration security.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the White House, Trump accused Guatemala of breaking a deal to enter into a "safe third country" agreement — even though the country's government has said it never agreed to the arrangement — and accused its leaders of using a high-court ruling that blocked the move as a convenient excuse.
"So Guatemala gave us their word. We were going to sign a safe third agreement and then all of a sudden they backed up," complained Trump. "They said it was their Supreme Court. I don't believe that, but they used their Supreme Court as the reason they didn't want to do it."
A "safe-third agreement" would require migrants, including Salvadorans and Hondurans, who cross into Guatemala on their way to the U.S. to apply for protections in Guatemala instead of at the U.S. border, potentially easing the crush of migrants overwhelming the U.S. immigration system and handing Trump a concession he could herald as a win.
Trump also continued to threaten consequences Wednesday, saying: "We'll either do tariffs or we'll do something. We're looking at something very severe with respect to Guatemala."
His tone was worlds away from the acting head of DHS, Kevin McAleenan, who said collaboration with Guatemala was "already yielding significant results" and pointed to an operation that broke up a human smuggling ring in May. He also told counterparts from Honduras, El Salvador and Panama, and the Costa Rican ambassador that he wants to see similar cooperation with them.
Trump had tweeted Tuesday that he was considering imposing tariffs, targeting remittance money sent to Guatemala by people living in the U.S., or even a "BAN" on the country to punish it for the move, which Guatemalan leaders blamed on the country's Constitutional Court.
The stunning discrepancy between Trump and his DHS leaders wasn't his first.
In March, the president accused Mexican and Central American leaders of doing ``nothing'' to prevent immigrants from coming to the United States illegally one day after then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with some of those same leaders to hammer out an agreement aimed at reducing the number of migrants streaming north.
Neilsen, too, tried to highlight the cooperation between governments, even as Trump complained about them.
McAleenan said Wednesday that the U.S. and Guatemala had been able to identify areas of collaboration along the border, such as ways to increase the ability to collect biometric data.
He said a minister-level group has focused over the past nine months on human trafficking, combating transnational criminal organizations and gangs, expanding information sharing and strengthening air, land and maritime border security.
Guatemala's minister of government, Enrique Degenhart, said the working group will become more effective once it includes Colombia. Panama and Costa Rica attended Wednesday for the first time.
"I tell today to these (criminal) structures: Get ready because we are going after you," Degenhart said. "We will not let you to keep using our territories."