The Republican nominee gets his presidential moment south of the border.
Donald Trump could barely have scripted it better. After a year of tormenting Mexico as a hostile foe, he stepped to a podium on Mexican soil — alongside the country’s leader Enrique Peña Nieto — and got a president’s welcome.
Trump emerged from an hour-long huddle with Peña Nieto and the pair delivered side-by-side statements, embedding subtle criticisms of each other inside enthusiastic declarations of mutual respect. But it was the precise visual Trump had hoped for: a bilateral press conference that amounted to a preview of what similar international trips might look like in a Trump presidency.
In written remarks — delivered in stilted bursts — Trump clung tightly to his arguments that NAFTA had benefited Mexico disproportionately to the United States’ detriment. He described a mutual agreement with Peña Nieto about each country’s right to build a border wall. Peña Nieto even contended that Trump’s hot-blooded rhetoric about Mexicans has been, in some cases, “misinterpretations.”
Yet the most striking development may have been Trump’s decision to simply ignore the central policy proposal of his campaign: forcing Mexico to pay for that 2,000-mile wall. Trump, responding to a reporter’s question, said financing for the wall simply didn’t come up in the conversation with Pena Nieto, that the talks were “preliminary” and could be continued later.
But it was a striking departure from his campaign-trail posture; so synonymous with the Trump candidacy is the wall proposal that adoring fans chant “Mexico!” at rallies when he asks who will fund his plan.
In a speech he plans to deliver later on Wednesday in Phoenix, Trump is expected to detail his immigration policy, which has suddenly become a moving target despite forming the core of his candidacy for the last year. Along with a Mexico-financed wall, he’s long pledged mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.
A campaign spokesman reiterated as recently as Tuesday that Trump still intends to force Mexico to pay for the wall. Sean Spicer, a Republican National Committee spokesman, added that he doesn’t expect Trumps’ speech to include much of a departure from his previously stated policies.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the speech, but he’s made it very clear that everyone who is not in the country legally must leave the country so I don’t expect to see any kind of departure from that,” he said on CNN Wednesday afternoon.
Peña Nieto, squeezed by political leaders in his own country, strained to deliver subtle rejections of Trump’s language while maintaining his pledge to be impartial in the American election. He delivered a methodical dismantling of Trump’s anti-NAFTA arguments, noting that trade with Mexico supports as many as 6 million American jobs. He also reminded Trump that for all the undocumented immigrants and drugs flowing north, illegal cash and weapons are flowing south.
“This is a point of view of border issues that’s clearly incomplete because it doesn’t consider the illegal flux of weapons and cash that come into the South,” he said. “Every year millions of weapons and millions of dollars cross illegally into Mexico from the North that strengthen cartels and other criminal organizations that generate violence in Mexico and receives earnings from drug sales in the United States. This flow has to be stopped.”
Illegal immigration to the United States had slowed since its peak a decade ago, he added. And he referred obliquely to Trump’s disparagement of undocumented immigrants from Mexico as rapists or criminals.
“People of Mexican heritage in the U.S. contribute every day with their work, talent, and creativity, to the prosperity and development of the U.S. and Mexico. Mexicans living in the U.S. are honest and hardworking people — they are people of good will, who respect family, who respect living in community, and who respect the law,” he said. “This is why Mexicans deserve everyone’s respect.”
Later, Peña Nieto lamented that there’s been “misinterpretations and statements that have unfortunately hurt and affected Mexicans in the way he’s presented his candidacy,” but he added that “I was sure that his genuine interest was to build a relationship.”
Trump, who delivered his statement second, embraced Nieto’s language, referring to the “deep and sincere” bond between America and Mexico and referred frequently to “we,” “us” and even “our hemisphere” when describing his posture toward Mexico, a far cry from the “America First” language that typically threads his speeches at home.
Republicans largely greeted Trump’s visit as a success, primarily because he’d set a low bar and managed to exceed it.
“[Hillary] Clinton’s framework is that Trump would embarrass the country abroad. He didn’t,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican operative former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “This Mexico trip worked for Trump in the short term.”
Peña Nieto’s predecessors were less diplomatic about their president’s decision to host Trump. Vicente Fox, who immediately preceded Peña Nieto as president, said the visit simply legitimized Trump’s earlier harsh rhetoric. After the speech, Fox’s predecessor Felipe Calderon called Trump a “hypocrite” for changing his tone.
“I don’t believe him. He is lying. He doesn’t mean what he says,” Calderon said on CNN. “He says we’re rapists and tomorrow he says we’re wonderful, smart, hard-working people. He is lying. And for that reason, I think, I was very, very sorry, I’m very sorry he came to Mexico. I think it was a very important mistake.”
Democrats and even Trump’s detractors among Republicans argue that it’s too late for him to convince large numbers of Hispanic voters to support his candidacy. Rather, they viewed his trip as a chance to frame his immigration speech and also to convince undecided white voters with concerns about his temperament that he can be trusted with international affairs.
Whether the speech turns out to be a watershed in the campaign or a too-little-too-late desperation play is unclear.
But with a firm handshake, and a declaration that Peña Nieto is a “friend,” Trump strode out of the presidential palace in Mexico City assured that, for a moment, he exceeded international expectations. And then he boarded his plane to Phoenix.