The last-minute meeting between the Republican presidential wannabe and the sitting Mexican president is a hard-to-fathom, high-stakes gamble almost guaranteed to cost both unpopular politicians.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
Many on both sides of the border woke up Wednesday stunned at the news that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would travel to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. But Mexicans quickly moved from astonishment to action: They organized a protest in the streets of the Mexican capital and filled social media channels, mocking a U.S. presidential candidate they despise and expressing anger at their own president for inviting him.
The trip has caused consternation in Mexico and not just because the bloviating New York businessman has built his presidential campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric, kicking off his bid for the White House by branding Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.” It’s not even that his continued attacks on America’s southern neighbor pushed Peña Nieto — of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico with an iron fist for decades — to compare him to Adolf Hitler. It’s that the two are among the most unpopular politicians in their respective countries, whose interests are diametrically opposed, with virtually no political upside to be gained from the private meeting at the Mexican presidential palace. In other words, Trump’s trip will almost certainly backfire on both.
Peña Nieto “will try and be hospitable and set the stage for positive U.S.-Mexico relations, no matter who the next president is,” Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Foreign Policy. “But on the other hand, he will need to show that he is a defender of the Mexican people and that he will not allow Mexico to be used as a political piñata in the U.S. election.”
Trump described his roughly hourlong meeting Wednesday afternoon with Peña Nieto as “open” and “honest,” saying later in an unannounced question-and-answer session, “We were very strong — we have to be strong.” An uncharacteristically sedated Trump read from a statement and repeated thanks to the Mexican president, as well as seemingly off-script praise for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, squeezing in a brag about how many he employs. But he also doubled-down on criticisms of Mexico on trade and national security, adding that although they did not discuss who would pay for the proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he did bring it up.
“We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall,” Trump said. He finished, turning to a stony-faced Peña Nieto, by saying, “I call you a friend.”
For his part, the Mexican president reiterated his obligation and intention to protect Mexicans at home and abroad — the implication being, from Trump and his purported policies. He offered a gentle rebuke, encouraging the United States to do more to curb its insatiable demand for drugs and the flow of illegal weapons south. He didn’t address Trump’s comments on the proposed wall.
“The Mexican people have felt hurt by the comments that have been made,” he said. “But I’m sure his genuine interest is to build a relationship that will improve the welfare of both our people.”
But later Wednesday, Peña Nieto said on Twitter that at the outset of his conversation with Trump, he made clear Mexico would not pay for his hypothetical wall.
Over the past week, Trump has seemed to back away from one of his campaign’s signature, if dramatic and unworkable, pledges: to deport the some 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. That flip-flop has caused him plenty of headaches with plenty of high-profile supporters yet has paid precious few dividends with other voters. His Mexican adventure comes just hours before an immigration speech in Phoenix later Wednesday, potentially forcing the infamously stubborn businessman to make two policy pivots in a single day — if he wants to hold on to his base.
Some Trump supporters seemed to believe the GOP nominee would somehow emerge from his meeting with Peña Nieto with a check in hand for the construction of his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. One former U.S. congressman suggested such an outcome would spell “game, set, match” for the U.S. election.
He didn’t get it.
Trump’s angry reception wasn’t unexpected; his walk-backs and double-downs on immigration haven’t won him much love south of the border. As former Mexican President Vicente Fox, a vocal Trump critic who appears to relish trolling the touchy real magnate and who has vowed never to pay for the wall, put it Wednesday on Twitter: “How @realDonaldTrump will explain the ‘unexplainable’? Now trying to make love to Mexicans, when he promised his followers to throw us out.”
For Peña Nieto, the meeting came as his approval ratings have plummeted, sinking to 23 percent from his election in 2012, according to Mexican newspaper Reforma — the lowest ever since it began polling in 1995. His administration has been beleaguered by reports that he plagiarized his law school thesis, by the recent firing of the chief of federal police amid continued allegations of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations, by endemic corruption, persistent violence from the drug war, and a wheezing economy despite sweeping reforms.
A meeting with one of the U.S. presidential nominees was a chance for him to defend Mexico’s part in combating drugs and stemming migration from Central America. In fact, President Barack Obama’s administration is giving Mexico millions of dollars to effectively import the U.S. immigration policy of detention and deportation to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, in order to help prevent migrants from making it to the United States.
Peña Nieto has quietly obliged. According to some estimates, last year, Mexico detained more Central Americans than the United States and deported as many as 12 times more unaccompanied children.
But anything less than a public denunciation of Trump, a widely detested figure in Mexico, was unlikely to sate a Mexican populace incensed at their president for appearing to lend himself as a political piñata in the U.S. election, and early reactions to the press conference indicated he didn’t go nearly far enough to stave off further fallout.
As Mexican Sen. Gabriela Cuevas Barron of the rival National Action Party said in Mexico City, just before Trump’s plane touched down, “Today, what is at risk is the dignity of Mexico. Our president is playing games with both our dignity and our sovereignty.”
Shortly after Trump confirmed the visit in a tweet Tuesday night, Peña Nieto responded that he’d defend the Mexican people wherever they may be, a pledge he reiterated several times in his appearance later with Trump. But even the hasty arrangements and last-minute scramble surrounding the meeting suggested the GOP nominee would defy any attempts by Mexico to manage the message.
The Mexican government on Aug. 27 invited both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, to visit. It’s not without precedent — increasingly, American and Mexican politicians have stepped into domestic politics in the other country; Peña Nieto’s predecessor condemned the controversial SB 1070 immigration law in Arizona, while Trump’s former rival and now confidant New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a high-profile visit in 2014 as he weighed a presidential run. Christie reportedly played a role in arranging Wednesday’s trip.
But Peña Nieto’s invitation appears to have been largely a formality, acknowledging the importance of relations between the two countries no matter who is elected in November, especially given Trump’s large deficit in national polls. That was underscored by the obvious signs that Mexico City was caught completely off guard when the Republican nominee actually accepted.
Confirming Trump’s tweet that he would be visiting, the Mexican president emphasized late Tuesday that he had invited both candidates and said the meeting would be private.
But on Wednesday reports surfaced that the two would hold a press conference — with an inevitably adversarial Mexican media — and Trump would take no questions, though he ultimately couldn’t resist. Much of the nominee’s official traveling press corps was left in Arizona, and some reporters scrambled to fly to Mexico City independently.
Typically, such a high-profile meeting would be coordinated weeks in advance, with every photo op carefully orchestrated for its political resonance and with complex security measures put in place. Reportedly, the Secret Service, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, and the U.S. State Department expressed concerns and advised against visiting Mexico, a caution Clinton appears to have heeded for now.
Not Trump. It may have been a move born of desperation — Trump trails Clinton by nearly five points nationwide, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average, and faces deficits in battleground states where the Latino voting block is key.
“What ultimately matters is what Donald Trump says to voters in Arizona, not Mexico, and whether he remains committed to the splitting up of families and deportation of millions,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, said.
Trump advisors have encouraged him to keep the focus on controversies over Clinton’s use and abuse of government email and the perception of her being untrustworthy, and he needs to speak to moderate and independent voters in battleground states north of the border, not to irate Mexicans.
Some observers have suggested the last-minute visit could build on Trump’s reputation as a wily negotiator willing to do the unexpected, but he’s likely to achieve little in return.
Even if he were to genuinely soften his stance on immigration and anti-Hispanic rhetoric — and despite playing the statesman behind the podium in photo ops with a head of state on Wednesday, that still seems unlikely — the polling deficit with those demographics seems irrevocable.
Megan Alpert and David Francis contributed to this story. It has been updated.
Photo credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/Stringer