Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is 0 for 2 for actually making it to a meeting with at the White House. He called off plans to travel to Washington, DC after a testy call over Trump’s border wall. If that story feels familiar, it’s because it is: Around this time last year, the same thing happened.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday evening that Peña Nieto was considering an official trip to the White House in February or March but that Mexico and the US called off the plan after Trump refused to agree to publicly affirm Mexico’s position that it wouldn’t pay for a wall at the US-Mexico border. The two presidents reportedly spoke by phone for nearly an hour last week, and neither would budge on the matter. For Mexico, the wall is considered offensive, and accepting it would be a blow to national pride. For Trump, it is a campaign trail crowd pleaser that is a big deal for his die-hard supporters.
“The problem is that President Trump has painted himself, President Peña Nieto and the bilateral relationship into a corner,” Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the US, told the Post. “Even from the get-go, the idea of Mexico paying for the wall was never going to fly. His relationship with Mexico isn’t strategically driven. It’s not even business; it’s personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that’s a huge problem. It could end up with the US asking itself, ‘Who lost Mexico?’”
In January 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration, the pair engaged in a highly publicized back-and-forth over payment for the wall. Trump signed an executive order to increase America’s deportation force and start its construction, which prompted Peña Nieto to deliver a video message promising to protect the Mexican people and immigrants and saying that Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall. Trump responded on Twitter, goading Peña Nieto to call off the meeting, which he did. Peña Nieto shot back in kind.
For both Peña Nieto and Trump, the border wall is a public relations problem. The transcript of a January 2017 phone call between the pair that took place just a couple of days after their White House meeting was called off last year can provide some insight.
Peña Nieto told Trump that he understood the “small political margin” he had in the US but also explained the “lack of margin” he had in Mexico. “We find this completely unacceptable for Mexicans to pay for the wall that you are thinking of building,” Peña Nieto told Trump. Trump told Peña Nieto “I have to” say Mexico will pay for the wall because “I have been talking about it for a two year period.” Trump suggested they both say “we will work it out” when asked about it. (In all likelihood, American taxpayers will end up paying for whatever wall construction is done.)
Since that call, Trump hasn’t visited Mexico City; Peña Nieto hasn’t come to Washington, although though the two presidents met at the G-20 summit in July. Per the Post, a few hours after Trump and Peña Nieto spoke last week, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, called the Mexican president to help smooth things over. Kushner met with a Mexican delegation in Washington earlier in February to help carve out the path for the two presidents to meet, during which both sides agreed Trump wouldn’t bring up the wall funding — which, obviously, he did.
US officials told the Post they think Peña Nieto, whose term ends in December, might try to visit Washington again, and the presidents could get together in April at the Summit of the Americas in Peru.
As for getting Trump off the wall thing and Mexico: It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon. At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Trump played some of his greatest hits, including dinging the US-Mexico trade deficit and calling NAFTA “no good.” And, of course, he brought up the wall. “You’re getting the wall. Don’t worry.”
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