Relations between President Trump and the incoming president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, were always going to be complicated. The question is whether they will become toxic.
Trump’s threats to close all or parts of the U.S.-Mexico border have antagonized the incoming administration in Mexico City, which takes office on Saturday, and members of Lopez Obrador’s transition team have sent mixed signals about their own intentions, creating uncertainty in Washington and among investors.
The impasse in Tijuana, where several thousand mostly Central American migrants are stuck on the border, poses the first major test of relations between Trump and Lopez Obrador. But there is a long list of potential confrontations.
In addition to differences on immigration, Lopez Obrador, a leftist, has hinted he may support legalizing some drugs. He accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and advocates forcefully for human rights, issues that set him apart from Trump. He also wants to shift more of Mexico’s trade into Latin America to get out of the U.S. shadow.
“They are on a collision course,” said Eric Olson, an expert on Mexico and Central America in the Washington office of the Seattle International Foundation, an advocacy group. “There are potentially many fault lines. The new government will be trying to carve out a position independent of the U.S.”
Lopez Obrador won his July 1 election with a large majority of the popular vote, giving him a strong mandate, and he enjoys wide national approval.
Despite the insults Trump hurled Mexico’s way during the 2016 presidential campaign and his early months in office, the outgoing government of President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to work with the White House.
That was largely achieved through back-channel diplomacy between Peña Nieto’s powerful foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner.
On some of his dozens of trips to Washington, Videgaray went straight to the White House, circumventing the State Department. And Kushner was crucial in revising a new trade treaty among the United States, Mexico and Canada to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, a key Trump goal.
Peña Nieto, whose overtures to Trump helped send his approval ratings into single digits, will reward Kushner on Friday by awarding him the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor Mexico bestows on foreigners.
“Jared Kushner was extremely important in keeping relations on track,” Geronimo Gutierrez, outgoing Mexican ambassador to the United States, said in Washington.
Lopez Obrador and the party he leads are likely to look to Latin America for trade deals and other concerns, and may withdraw from the U.S.-backed Lima Group of South American countries trying to restore democracy in Venezuela — a pet project of the Trump administration.
For now, the Trump administration is putting out a welcome mat. Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, a former mayor of Mexico City, already has met at least twice with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, and they are scheduled to meet again Sunday. Pompeo made a point of stopping in to see Lopez Obrador, Ebrard and other members of their party during a whirlwind visit to Mexico City in July.
Immigration and trade remain the chief U.S. concerns. The Trump administration wants Mexico to allow migrants to remain in Mexico to await processing of their American asylum claims, to no avail so far.
Lopez Obrador campaigned on a different approach for immigration, but much of it was vague and focused on long-standing issues such as helping to improve conditions in Central America, where many of the migrants originate.
“It is very hard to understand right now exactly where the new Mexican government may be going on immigration,” said Roberta Jacobson, who retired in May as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Trump has not nominated a successor.
Peña Nieto was seen largely as helping Washington through a policy critics called “detention, retention and deportation,” Carlos Antonio Heredia Zubieta, an analyst at a think tank in Mexico City, said in a telephone briefing arranged by the Wilson Center in Washington.
Lopez Obrador is unlikely to follow the same playbook. But his first letter to Trump was sufficiently positive, and lacking in policy detail, as to keep the U.S. president on his side.
“Just spoke to President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico. Great call, we will work well together!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Oct. 3.
In a subsequent speech in Miami outlining the administration’s Latin America policy, national security advisor John Bolton barely mentioned Mexico, focusing instead on U.S. opposition to leftist governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Lopez Obrador “has been very careful at handling the ego of President Trump and will play that game until something unexpected happens on the border,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at the College of Mexico, a think tank.
Aguayo thinks Peña Nieto, either deliberately or inadvertently, allowed the recent migrant caravan to cross Mexico to help Trump with his base before the midterm election, as the U.S. president stoked fear by warning of an “invasion.” But it left a “high-power bomb” for Lopez Obrador, Aguayo said.
Even a leftist president of Mexico has reasons to avoid antagonizing Trump.