Jared Kushner, in Mexico, meets President Peña Nieto amid tensions over NAFTA and border wall

Jared Kushner, in Mexico, meets President Peña Nieto amid tensions over NAFTA and border wall
A convoy transporting White House envoy Jared Kushner leaves the Foreign Ministry and heads to the presidential residence, Los Pinos, in Mexico City on March 7, 2018. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House advisor, traveled to Mexico on Wednesday for talks with top Mexican officials, including President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The Mexican media reported that Kushner was whisked to a meeting in Mexico City with Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, who has cultivated a close relationship with the Trump confidant.


Kushner later met with Peña Nieto. In a statement issued later, the Mexican government said that representatives of the two countries "agreed to work for agreements beneficial to both nations."

Whether the two presidents will hold a meeting, it said, "will depend on the level of progress achieved" on a range of bilateral issues, including trade, "security, immigration and economic cooperation."

Here in Mexico, Kushner's visit was widely seen as a move to soothe rocky U.S.-Mexico relations.

The binational bond has been fraught since Trump assumed office after a presidential campaign marked by what many Mexicans view as blatant Mexico-bashing and scapegoating of Mexican immigrants in the United States.

Kushner' s visit comes as tension between the two neighbors have flared anew amid profound differences about trade policy and Trump's insistence that Mexico pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border — a demand that Mexico has repeatedly and emphatically rejected.

The U.S.-Mexico tension led to the resignation last week of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, who is said to have viewed her role as undercut by the machinations of Kushner and Videgaray.

A planned visit by Peña Nieto to Washington was postponed last month, reportedly after a tense telephone call during which Trump again pressed his Mexican counterpart to pick up the bill for the multibillion-dollar wall, which is to be built on the U.S. side of the border.

That aborted trip recalled a headline-grabbing episode in January 2017 when Peña Nieto announced he had scuttled a visit to the White House because of the wall dispute.

The canceled trip just weeks after Trump's inauguration set a downbeat tone for U.S.-Mexico relations during the Trump era — though, in subsequent months, officials from both nations sought to alleviate strains.

Just this week, however, tension ratcheted up anew in connection with another incendiary issue: the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the almost quarter-century-old trade pact among Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Trump has repeatedly called NAFTA a "disaster" that helped hollow out the U.S. manufacturing sector and sent jobs to Mexico.

On Monday, Trump declared in a Twitter message that he would consider exempting Mexico and Canada from planned tariffs on imported steel and aluminum "if a new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed."

The Mexican and Canadian governments rejected Trump's comments and vowed to retaliate economically should Washington impose new tariffs on metal imports.

Mexican officials would like to wrap up the NAFTA renegotiation before the July 1 presidential election here, thus giving the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party a campaign talking point. NAFTA is a cornerstone of the economy in Mexico, which sends almost 80% of its exports to the United States.


But many NAFTA observers say such a timetable appears unlikely as the trade talks remain mired in impasse on several key issues.

Kushner's expansive foreign affairs portfolio includes U.S.-Mexico issues, though he is not known to have had any expertise in the field before he joined his father-in-law's White House.

Kushner's visit comes after last week's announcement in Washington that his security clearance had been downgraded after months of delay in completing his official background check.

The downgrade restricts Kushner's access to some classified information. But his official visit to Mexico, accompanied by other U.S. aides, seems to signal that Kushner will continue to be a key player, at least in U.S.-Mexico affairs.

Kushner, 37, a New York-area real estate scion who had no diplomatic or government experience before Trump's election, has been the president's go-to advisor for some of Washington's most delicate issues, including Middle East peace and Mexico.

Videgaray worked to establish and sustain contacts with Kushner during Trump's presidential campaign, at a time when few believed that Trump could win the election.

Videgaray has continued to cultivate those contacts, frequently traveling to Washington and heading straight into meetings at the White House — with Kushner — and completely sidelining the usual venue, the State Department.

The Kushner-Videgaray back channel has helped keep on track what otherwise would be a ruptured relationship. The two have attempted to alleviate the effect of Trump's repeated insults and derogatory language about Mexico and Mexicans.

However, the foreign secretary has come under criticism at home for being too close to Kushner and the Trump White House. Videgaray is said to have helped arrange then-candidate Trump's August 2016 meeting in Mexico City with Peña Nieto — an encounter that became a political debacle for the Mexican president.

Times staff writers McDonnell and Wilkinson reported from Mexico City and Washington, respectively.

Twitter: @PmcdonnellLAT


8:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from the Mexican government.

3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.