Donald Trump strikes a softer tone in Mexico but holds fast to his stand against illegal immigration

Showcasing his flair for the dramatic, Donald Trump flew his unpredictable campaign to Mexico on Wednesday and, in a hastily arranged summit with the country's president, insisted on building a border wall and ending illegal immigration.

The trip to a nation he has repeatedly maligned was a stunning move for Trump, who spoke alongside President Enrique Peña Nieto after their meeting. Trump controlled the brief news conference, barely let Peña Nieto speak, and called on no Mexican reporters when he took questions. He used far more conciliatory language than he has on the campaign trail, at one point referring to Peña Nieto as “a friend.”

“I was straightforward in presenting my views about the impacts of current trade and immigration policies on the United States,” Trump said. “There are many improvements that could be made that would make both Mexico and the United States stronger and keep industry in our hemisphere.… A strong, prosperous and vibrant Mexico is in the best interest of the United States.”

Trump marched into decidedly hostile territory on a trip that puzzled and infuriated Mexicans across political lines. He has inspired widespread anger in Mexico, where Trump piñatas are for sale and he is frequently mocked online and in song. Demonstrators rallied around Mexico City’s gilded Angel de la Independencia statue and waved signs in English reading: “Trump, go home.”

Inside the presidential compound, Los Pinos, Trump held back from the fiery persona he unleashes at campaign rallies in the U.S. Even as he insisted on building a border wall, he said he did not raise the idea of forcing Mexico to pay for it, though Peña Nieto later contradicted that assertion on Twitter.

Peña Nieto, for his part, referred to border security as a “shared responsibility” — an allusion to his government’s position that under no circumstances will it pay for the wall.

Instead, Peña Nieto emphasized the need for cooperation, the advantages of the $500 billion in commerce the two nations share and potential points of agreement. But he also pushed back at the Republican nominee, who launched his campaign last summer by saying many Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and demanding that Mexico pay for his border wall.

"My job is to protect Mexicans wherever they are, and I will continue to do that," Peña Nieto told Trump, the two men standing at lecterns on a stage with one flag, Mexico’s. “Mexicans who live in the U.S. contribute to prosperity there.... They are people who are honest and hardworking. They respect the law ... and deserve the respect of everyone."

Peña Nieto seemed to leave the door open for renegotiating, or at least updating, the landmark, 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which governs commerce among Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. Trump, who has called NAFTA “a disaster,” is likely to seize on that opening to trumpet a victory and push ahead with his anti-globalization campaign plank.

The visit to Mexico, just hours before Trump planned to deliver a long-awaited speech on immigration enforcement, represented yet another gamble for him.

A high-level meeting in a presidential palace with a foreign leader allowed the outsider candidate to demonstrate statesmanship and to assure voters that his tough talk will not prevent him from striking dialogue with foreign leaders.

Interviews, focus groups and polling have shown that some persuadable voters have been reluctant to support Trump because he does not seem presidential, in part because of his bellicose rhetoric toward allies like Mexico, as well as inflammatory language directed at Mexican immigrants crossing the border illegally and to a U.S.-born judge of Mexican descent.

The visit to Mexico also ensured that Trump and his freewheeling campaign commanded maximum attention during a moment on the calendar when many Americans tune out the campaign.

That cuts in multiple directions. The trip helped detract from the details of Trump’s immigration policy, an issue that has caused him trouble over the last two weeks because he has waffled on whether he will abandon his pledge to deport 11 million immigrants who have entered the country illegally. 

The attention on Trump’s trip also may benefit rival Hillary Clinton, who could be facing a tough week of scrutiny related to the FBI’s expected release of its investigative file on her private email server.

Clinton also has been on a high-dollar fundraising tear criticized by some as unseemly amid a campaign that focuses on economic inequality. On Tuesday, for example, she attended an event in the Hamptons that raised more than $2.5 million from 10 donors who each gave at least $250,000. 

Instead, Trump seized the political world’s attention.

Clinton dismissed Trump’s spur-of-the-moment visit. At a speech in Cincinnati she said that coalition-building “takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again.”

Peña Nieto, who is extremely unpopular at home, faced a far riskier gamble than Trump.

The Mexican president may hope his hosting of such a high-profile luminary will distract Mexicans from the raft of scandals crippling his government, including massacres by security forces, economic slowdown, rampant corruption at the highest levels of his administration and, most recently, revelations that Peña Nieto plagiarized a good portion of the thesis for his law degree. 

But turning to someone so reviled as Trump does not seem like the kind of distraction he needs.

“These are men who are not very popular, so you wonder what they add to each other’s numbers,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, who called Wednesday’s meeting “a puzzling maneuver.” 

While Trump probably viewed the meeting as “a grand gesture that may ingratiate him with Latino voters,” Payan said he didn’t know what the Mexican president hoped to gain. 

“Peña Nieto is gambling here with whatever he’s got left to use,” Payan said. 

The Mexican president was roundly criticized by Mexicans across the political spectrum, with former President Vicente Fox calling him "a traitor" for inviting Trump.

“It’s embarrassing that the president has invited someone who hates Mexicans to our country,” said Olga Ruiz, a 42-year-old professor. 

“This is real to us,” said Caludio Negrete, 35, who spent years working illegally in the U.S. and has family there. “We’re afraid if he is elected that there will be deportations and families separated.”

Peña Nieto portrayed the meeting as a diplomatic opportunity allowing him to pitch to Trump the importance of NAFTA and the free flow of remittances, money that Mexicans working in the U.S. send home — and which Trump has threatened to use as blackmail to make Mexico pay for his border wall.

Peña Nieto, for example, attempted to explain to Trump that illegal immigration by Mexicans into the U.S. is at a decade low. But Trump seemed to ignore that.

Even more dangerous for Peña Nieto, several analysts said, is that Trump will make nice in Mexico, then return to the campaign trail and to his divisive rhetoric.

As the No. 2 market for U.S. products and a key partner in fighting drug trafficking, Mexico’s economic, political and cultural ties to the U.S. cannot be overestimated, and experts say whoever the next U.S. president is will have to maintain a productive relationship, not one based on acrimony.

Traditionally reluctant to appear to be intervening in U.S. politics, the Mexican government initially was restrained in commenting on Trump’s more outrageous statements. Eventually, under pressure from his own constituencies, Peña Nieto began to describe the real estate tycoon’s rhetoric as ominously similar to the populist stridency employed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. And he said point-blank that Mexico would not pay for a border wall.

More quietly, the Mexican government, through a network of consulates in two dozen U.S. cities, is offering support for Mexicans who are eligible to become U.S. citizens and helping them register to vote, especially in swing states.

Linthicum reported from Mexico City and Wilkinson and Bierman from Washington.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com 

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UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with more details, comment and reaction from the meeting.

2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the meeting.

This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.

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