Reversing a more diplomatic tone he set during a joint appearance with Donald Trump in the Mexican capital, President Enrique Peña Nieto called the Republican presidential candidate’s ideas a “threat to the future of Mexico.”
Peña Nieto’s hostile words came Wednesday night, hours after he met privately with Trump and shortly after the real estate mogul delivered an incendiary speech in Phoenix in which he repeatedly portrayed immigrants in the U.S. as dangerous criminals and vowed to force Mexico to pay for construction of a border wall.
Peña Nieto said Trump’s proposal to end free trade agreements and deport millions of immigrants are a danger to Mexico. “Imagine what that represents, and tell me it is not a risk to Mexico,” he said.
When the president appeared side by side with Trump after their meeting at his residence in Mexico City, Peña Nieto described the meeting as “open and constructive,” and said there had been “misunderstandings” about Trump’s comments about Mexicans in the past. They shook hands before they parted.
But in the interview with Televisa’s Denise Maerker on Wednesday night, Peña Nieto said Trump’s ideas were dangerous, and said he had invited Trump to Mexico precisely because of the danger the candidate would pose to Mexico if elected.
“I think this risk and threat must be addressed,” he said. “You have to face it head on.”
Trump and Peña Nieto emerged from their meeting with competing narratives around Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump told journalists that the pair never discussed who would pay for construction of such a barrier. “We didn’t discuss payment of the wall,” Trump said, adding that such a conversation would come “at a later date.”
Peña Nieto remained silent on the issue then. But a few hours later, he tweeted that the subject had come up immediately.
“At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto wrote.
Trump and the Mexican president aired their differences again on Thursday, beginning when Trump tweeted: “Mexico will pay for the wall!”
Peña Nieto responded shortly after with a tweet of his own: “I repeat what I told you personally, Mr. Trump: Mexico will never pay for a wall.”
Peña Nieto’s decision to host Trump has been widely panned in Mexico, where people are deeply offended by Trump’s frequent and harsh criticism of Mexico and Mexican immigrants over the past year of campaigning. Former President Vicente Fox called Peña Nieto, who has been suffering badly in public opinion polls in recent months, “a traitor.”
Those feelings intensified Wednesday night after Trump delivered a fiery immigration speech in Arizona in which he doubled down on that rhetoric, painting immigrants in the country illegally largely as criminals who pose a risk to the United States. Trump also reiterated his plans to build a border wall and have Mexico pay for it, saying, “They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.”
“Trump’s visit should be seen as a new low for an already embattled president,” Mexican historian Leon Krauze wrote of Peña Nieto in the Washington Post.
In the interview Wednesday night, Peña Nieto defended his decision to meet with Trump, which he said was important given the close economic and cultural ties of the U.S. and Mexico. The president said he thought he had helped change Trump’s views on at least one point: free trade agreements.
While Trump has said in the past that he would leave the North American Free Trade Agreement if elected, on Wednesday, the candidate told reporters in Mexico City that he supported a renegotiation of the deal.
“I appreciate the change in tone,” Peña Nieto said.
In an opinion piece published Thursday morning in the newspaper El Universal, Peña Nieto again sought to explain why he invited Trump to Mexico.
“In his campaign speeches, Trump has not treated us as partners or as allies, thanks to a distorted vision of Mexico and its people,” he said. “This is why it was important to talk to him and clarify that future dialogue between the two countries needs to start from a place of mutual respect.
“I am convinced that the bigger the differences, the more dialogue is needed,” he said. Trump’s reaction to his points on that issue, he said, was “positive.”