Mexican President Wins First Round After Trump Snub
New administration hands PR win to Peña Nieto, loses opportunity in first test of diplomatic prowess
In the first major sign that tensions will rise in the short term between Mexico and the United States, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a Tuesday meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The spat suggests Mexico is capable of getting the upper hand in the public relations dance with Trump, despite the massive advantage in leverage held by the United States. It shows a misplaced tweet from Trump can push away negotiating partners — even as progress is being made by their lieutenants.
“The president’s been very clear on his intention to build the wall and how it would be paid for. I think he’s been consistent with that throughout.”
The catalyst of Peña Nieto’s cancellation was a two-part tweet from Trump Thursday morning.
“The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico,” Trump tweeted. “It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
According to figures familiar with the incident, the tweets were sent without being considered by staff. The surprise suggestion Peña Nieto should think of canceling if he didn’t want to pay for the wall would have been provocative on its own, but adding to the drama was the fact Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray was in Washington for trade talks with Trump’s own administration.
After Trump’s tweet, Peña Nieto decided to cancel on Thursday.
“This morning we have informed the White House that I will not attend the meeting scheduled for next Tuesday with the POTUS,” Peña Nieto tweeted.
The cancellation indicates a rocky road ahead for bilateral cooperation while Trump weighs balancing a hard-line approach with the delicate art of diplomacy. The implications of which will not only impact Trump’s border wall, but could spill-over into the nations’ crucial economic partnership.
Trump wants to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which will require serious, sustained negotiations with the Mexican government. The incident Thursday instead led to both major world leaders stirring popular support at home and losing an opportunity to summit.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Trump’s comments “sparked a rare moment of consensus across Mexico’s political spectrum.” Peña Nieto, who has suffered poor numbers in recent job approval polls, was suddenly handed a unique opportunity to unify his political adversaries against Trump.
Leftist opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, one of Peña Nieto’s chief political rivals, said the president should take Mexico’s case to the United Nations, WSJ reported. Other Mexican officials celebrated calling Trump’s bluff.
In driving Peña Nieto and his administration away from the negotiating table, Trump may be squandering an opportunity to allow the Mexican government to save face and drop their fierce opposition to the construction of a border wall — in addition to unifying popular opposition to the United States in Mexico.
A number of concepts to pay for the wall that would satisfy Trump’s pledge and save Peña Nieto from being forced into a politically untenable position have been floated. Among those ideas has been to establish a joint drug-interdiction fund between the two nations to use seized cartel assets to fund border security improvements.
Unfortunately for proponents of those ideas in both administrations, the talks will now likely take a step back as both sides entrench behind rhetoric.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump, for one, won't be backing down.
"The president's been very clear on his intention to build the wall and how it would be paid for," Spicer said. "I think he's been consistent with that throughout. I think he wants to make sure that's understood that it would be part of the topics to be discussed."
Spicer did however indicate the White House would stay in touch with the Mexican government.
"We will look for a date to schedule something in the future," said Spicer. "We will keep the lines of communication open."
Later in the day, Trump told Republican leaders at a congressional retreat in Philadelphia that the U.S.-Mexico relationship lacked full respect from south of the border.
"Unless Mexico is going to treat the United States fairly, with respect, such a meeting would be fruitless, and I want to go a different route," said Trump.
Questioned about how Trump would pay for the wall in the short term, Spicer told the press that Trump intends to pay for wall by imposing a 20-percent tax on all imports from Mexico.
Meanwhile, Peña Nieto suggested Mexico is softer on immigration than the United States.
"Mexico does not believe in walls. I've said time again; Mexico will not pay for any wall," he said in a video statement posted to Twitter and translated by CNN from Spanish.
Yet The Daily Signal reported in 2011 that Mexican law considers "illegal entry a federal crime … penalized with imprisonment for up to two years, a fine from three hundred to five thousand Mexican Pesos, and deportation."
Still, a long-term solution is in the interests of Trump and Peña Nieto. The issue has been simmering for decades. Trump was elected to solve it. Not speaking to Peña Nieto will make the issue harder to resolve.