Mexico’s president, sharing a victory lap with President Donald Trump over a new trade deal, lauded him Wednesday for showing increasing respect for his fellow Mexicans — a stark reversal from earlier criticism of Trump’s long record of immigrant-bashing.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blistered Trump during the 2016 election for his inflammatory comments towards Mexicans and other foreigners, and he risked significant backlash at home for appearing now with the U.S. president.
But with both economies flailing and struggling with world-leading COVID-19 rates, courting Trump was a calculated risk — stroking his ego and delivering a bonus by simultaneously snubbing his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, four months before the election.
“History tells us that it is possible to understand each other without arrogance or extremism,” Lopez Obrador said in the Rose Garden at Trump’s side. Noting the heat he’s taken over the wisdom of this visit, he added, “Thank you, President Trump for being increasingly respectful with our Mexican fellow men.”
Then, under a blazing afternoon sun, the presidents signed a joint declaration that notes the restrictions imposed to address the pandemic and lauding the new trade deal as a recipe for each side to rebuild.
Trump set a conciliatory tone, avoiding the sort of inflammatory rhetoric he employs on Twitter and at campaign rallies, which critics say is intended to stoke xenophobia and scapegoat noncitizens.
“The United States is home to 36 million incredible Mexican American citizens,” Trump said. “Mexican Americans uplift our communities and they strengthen our churches and enrich every feature of national life. They are hardworking, incredible people.”
People of Mexican heritage account for more than one in 10 U.S. residents, the biggest population outside Mexico itself. Trump made no mention of unlawful immigration, at least not in public.
Lopez Obrador said the diaspora represents people seeking only a better life, and he sharpened Trump’s message by specifying the contributions of migrant workers known as braceros, though it didn’t come off as a direct jab.
“It is a community of good working people, good people, working people, who have come here to make a living in a very honest fashion, and they have contributed so much to the development of this great nation,” he said.
He heaped on the flattery in language that Mexican critics deemed fawning: “You have not tried to treat us as a colony. … That’s why I’m here to express to the people of the United States that their president has behaved with us with kindness and respect. You have treated us just as what we are: a country and a dignified people; a free, democratic, and sovereign people.”
Biden swiped at both presidents, noting on Twitter that “Trump launched his 2016 campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. He’s spread racism against our Latino community ever since.”
A military honor guard awaited Lopez Obrador when he arrived midafternoon – typical pomp for a visiting president.
Trump welcomed him at the West Wing, flashing a thumbs-up. Both waved to the cameras, though neither flashed much of a smile ordinarily on display at such ceremonies.
After an afternoon of meetings, Trump was to host a working dinner with aides and business leaders from both countries, including Mexican investor Carlos Slim, whose $50 billion portfolio makes him the world’s fifth wealthiest person.
The relationship is critical to both U.S. and Mexico, each the other’s top trading partner, though Mexico only recently passed Canada for that distinction. U.S.-Mexico trade topped $614 billion last year, according to Mexican officials.
The Mexican president started his day by laying a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial.
For Trump, the upsides of the visit were readily apparent.
He has relied on Mexican cooperation to block migration from Central America, and to accept asylum-seekers turned away by the United States. And given his bashing of immigrants and push to curb immigration, which has alienated moderate voters — suburban women, for instance — the visit could confer immediate benefits.
“It’s an admission of shared interests,” said Geronimo Gutierrez, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. who has held senior posts in the foreign ministry.
It’s for those same reasons that analysts expect Lopez Obrador to pay a domestic price.
“Any Mexican official perceived as trying to work with the Trump administration is going to pay political costs,” because of Trump’s “demeaning” comments toward Mexico and Mexicans, Gutierrez said on a video briefing hosted Wednesday by the Wilson Center.
Gutierrez noted that Lopez Obrador was very critical of Trump, and his own predecessor’s outreach to Trump, given the U.S. president’s hard-line policies on asylum-seekers and other migrants, and his bashing of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and murderers.
“Is that sufficient not to have a visit? I don’t think so,” he added. He “suddenly finds himself in the need to work with the Trump administration as best as possible.”
Roberta Jacobson, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and as the State Department’s top official for the Western Hemisphere, noted that most threats facing the neighbors are transnational — the drug trade, cartel violence, migration, environmental, energy and economic issues and most recently, the pandemic.
“This relationship is too important to be left only to politicians,” or to play politics with, she said.
Presidents usually take care to avoid meddling — or appearing to meddle — in another country’s elections. The snub of Biden violates that tradition.
Typically, “There are scrupulous preparations to ensure that this does not look like a political act in favor of one candidate or another, and clearly that has not been done here,” Jacobson said on the Wilson Center briefing.
She also called it unusual to have a summit of this sort without clear goals other than to celebrate a trade deal that is already in place.
“Where is the beef in this visit?” she said. “It’s a bit of a lost opportunity. This is an ideal opportunity to relaunch a North American relationship, with all three of the leaders, especially with people questioning the relationship with China and the overreliance on them for supply chains.”
The absence of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was indeed glaring, given the focus on celebrating the July 1 implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany asserted that Trudeau was unable to travel because of Canada’s own coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien brushed aside Trudeau’s absence, saying that he and Trump speak regularly.
“We have a terrific relationship with Mexico and we have a terrific relationship with Canada,” he said. “… It’s an incredible economic bloc. It’s not rivaled anywhere else in the world, and this is a great opportunity for the president of the United States and the president of Mexico to get together and have a great talk.”
Some 5 million U.S. jobs and millions more in Mexico rely on U.S.-Mexico trade.
“There is no bilateral relationship in the world that touches the lives of more Americans,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, another former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
For him, the summit at the White House was a good sign, a way to move beyond a relationship marked mainly by crisis management for several years.
“What Mexicans want of the relationship with the U.S. … is a relationship that is useful, that positively affects their daily lives.”
Mexicans have learned over the years to differentiate between bluster and realities in the U.S. relationship, and as long as this visit is “not insulting, not demeaning, not unrespectful,” that would be a positive outcome, he said.
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