Tillerson travels through Latin America, with Trump’s immigration rhetoric as baggage

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson poses with Chrystia Freeland, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Luis Videgaray, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, at Mexico's ministry during their talks about hemispheric issues on Friday in Mexico City.
(Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

During his visit to Mexico City on Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was carefully trying to explain to his counterparts from Mexico and Canada just why the United States’ efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration are not mean-spirited.

Just outside Washington, however, President Trump was holding forth with U.S. Homeland Security officials, complaining about immigrants who are in the country illegally and drugs flooding across the southern border and questioning the commitments of both Mexico and Colombia, which Tillerson plans to visit on Tuesday, to stop the traffic. Perhaps he should just cut off their foreign aid, the president groused.

So much for Tillerson’s weeklong goodwill tour of the region, as Trump’s words inevitably traveled south.


“The president’s comments were not helpful,” said a senior State Department official who accompanied Tillerson, in rare acknowledgment of the messaging gulf between Trump and his secretary of State.

It was the latest incident in which Trump has undercut Tillerson, America’s top diplomat, by announcing or simply tweeting policies — or insults — at inopportune moments. Last year, memorably, as Tillerson returned from delicate talks with China about cooperating to confront North Korea, Trump tweeted that Tillerson should “stop wasting your time” with diplomacy on the matter.

Amid Tillerson’s talks Friday with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Canada’s Chrystia Freeland, Trump spoke at a federal facility in northern Virginia, near Washington, to a roundtable of border and customs agents about illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

“And what are Mexico and Colombia and these other countries — what are they doing about it? Nothing,” Trump said. When he was told the countries actually were close partners with the United States in policing efforts, Trump replied skeptically, “Do you think they’re really trying?”

Speaking of the influx of illegal drugs, Trump said, “These countries are not our friends. You know, we think they’re our friends and we send them massive aid. And I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us.

“I want to stop the aid,” Trump added, “if they can’t stop drugs from coming in.”

Diplomats have said that such harsh rhetoric from the president impedes the broader mission of Tillerson and other State Department envoys who seek to build relationships to further the U.S. agenda.


At a news conference after the talks in Mexico City, Tillerson sidestepped a question about how the contradictions between what he and Trump say ultimately make his job more difficult.

Other State Department officials, while carefully avoiding direct reference to Trump, emphasized that it is Tillerson who articulates American foreign policy and who oversees how some immigration policies are shaped. Yet that has not always been the case in the year-old Trump administration. Also, if Tillerson speaks on American policy, and Trump says something else, foreigners are all but certain to accept the president’s version over his aide’s.

Tillerson “is a respectful person who wants to help those who are in limbo to reach a solution,” said Steven Goldstein, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. “He doesn’t change his speech, regardless of what might be happening in the world.

“Different people speak different ways, but the policy hasn’t changed, and the secretary spoke about U.S. foreign policy today,” added Goldstein, in remarks to reporters traveling with Tillerson as he flew from Mexico to Saturday’s stop in Bariloche, Argentina.

Despite the backdrop of tensions, Videgaray and Freeland lavished praise on Tillerson, though not Trump, with the Canadian foreign minister referring to the American secretary of State as the voice for the respect of international rules.

Mexican officials were apparently so chagrined at Trump’s recent rhetoric that they tried at the last minute to conceal who had attended a dinner with Tillerson on Thursday night at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the proceedings. In addition to Videgaray, Mexico’s top military brass attended, an unusual twist of protocol.


Trump, at his meeting at the Border Patrol National Targeting Center in Sterling, Va., seemed surprised to learn that among the countries that have refused to take back deported nationals were China, Guinea and Eritrea.

“Those are unusual names,” he said, “because you normally think in terms of South America.”

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