Tentative plans for a trip by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to the White House have been scrapped after he and President Trump spoke by phone and tangled once again over Trump’s plans to erect a border wall, according to news reports.
The two leaders spoke for about 50 minutes on Tuesday and devoted much of the conversation to the wall, the Washington Post reported Saturday. Citing anonymous sources, the Post said Trump once again insisted that Mexico pay for the wall. Peña Nieto once again said Mexico would not.
The Post said one Mexican official said Trump “lost his temper,” while U.S. officials described him being more exasperated.
While both Washington and Mexico city confirmed Saturday that Trump and Peña Nieto spoke Tuesday, both sides provided only sketchy official accounts of the call. Reuters reported that both governments agreed now was not the time for Peña Nieto visit to Washington.
The two leaders expressed mutual condolences about the deaths from the high school shooting in Florida and from the crash of a military helicopter in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, according to the Mexican government’s account of the call.
“Both leaders reiterated their commitment to advance ... the bilateral agenda in terms of security, commerce and migration, through the coordinated forces of their work groups,” Mexico said of the call.
Mexican authorities had never confirmed that Peña Nieto was scheduled to travel this month to Washington, despite accounts in the Mexican media that such a trip was planned.
Reports suggested that Peña Nieto’s advisors had been closely weighing both the potential benefits and pitfalls of such a meeting since the Mexican secretary of foreign relations, Luis Videgaray, returned from Washington this month with word that Trump’s team was receptive to a visit.
But ultimately the “volatility” of Trump and the “lack of certainty about his commitments and actions” led Mexican officials to defer the meeting, wrote columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio on Friday in the El Horizonte newspaper of Monterrey.
The major sticking point: the possibility that the Mexican president could end up looking bad or even being humiliated should the unpredictable Trump renew his vow that Mexico would pay for his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The theme is the same that they have clashed about publicly on other occasions, the border wall,” Riva Palacio wrote.
Mexico’s cautious approach suggests that Mexican officials were seeking to stage-manage the visit in such a way as to avoid awkward moments for Peña Nieto, who never gives news conferences and is most comfortable in heavily choreographed political events.
Any public perception emerging from a White House confab that Trump bullied Peña Nieto — or that the Mexican president was submissive to his U.S. counterpart — could have substantial political blowback in Mexico during a presidential election year.
Polls have shown Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party off to a slow start in the run-up to July’s elections.
Peña Nieto has already taken political heat in Mexico for not being more confrontational with Trump, even though the Mexican president called off a planned White House trip in January 2017 amid Trump’s insistence that Mexico would pay for the wall. The tense relationship between the two neighbors has eased considerably in the past year, but the wall remains an incendiary issue.
On the positive side, a Peña Nieto-Trump get-together could have served to calm jittery markets just as Mexico, the United States and Canada head into a seventh round of talks on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The seventh round of talks is slated to begin Monday in Mexico City.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to scuttle the 23-year-old trade pact as a job-killer for the United States, while Mexico views the trade deal as vital for its economy, which is heavily dependent on U.S. trade.
“The photo of the two presidents would help to send a message to the markets that apart from the complexity of some of the chapters [of NAFTA] that are still to be resolved, it is not likely that Trump would repudiate the accord,” Riva Palacio wrote.
Ultimately, though, it appears that Pena Nieto’s advisors concluded that the potential economic benefits of a Trump-Pena Nieto handshake session were outweighed by the potential that the Mexican president could be embarrassed or coming out looking weak.