Relations between the US and Mexico have been frigid ever since Trump won the presidency, and according to media reports, that's where they remained last week when preliminary plans for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to make his first visit to the White House to meet with President Trump were indefinitely postponed after a "testy" call between the two leaders ended in an impasse over Trump’s promised border wall, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
As the WaPo first reported, followed by the WSJ and Bloomberg, Peña Nieto was hoping to make an official trip to Washington this or next month, but both countries agreed to call off the plan after Trump refused to agree to publicly affirm Mexico’s position that it would not fund construction of the border wall which Mexicans generally consider offensive said both US and Mexican officials, suggesting that Trump's plans to eradicate leakers have been a failure.
While discussing a sensitive to the US president topic, an unnamed Mexican source said Trump "lost his temper" while U.S. officials instead described Trump "as being frustrated and exasperated, saying Trump believed it was unreasonable for Peña Nieto to expect him to back off his crowd-pleasing campaign promise of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall."
In the WSJ's similar account, during the conversation, “things got difficult” when Trump refused to agree to Mr. Peña Nieto’s demands that he avoid talking during the planned meeting about his campaign promise to make Mexico pay for the construction of the wall.
After the phone call, the Mexican government canceled the planned meeting. The cancellation was first reported by the Washington Post and Mexican weekly news magazine Proceso.
Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay billions for a wall to stop illegal immigration was a central point of his presidential campaign, which he began by labeling some Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Mexico, and its presidency, has repeatedly said paying for the wall is a non-starter. Ultimately, it was the Mexican president's desire to avoid public embarrassment — and Trump’s unwillingness to provide that assurance — that proved to be the dealbreaker.
A physically slight man, Peña Nieto has been loath to put himself in an environment in which the more imposing Trump could play the bully. Peña Nieto’s style is exceedingly formal, and he is averse to verbal combat, making his carefully scripted public events the opposite of Trump’s often freewheeling appearances.
Then there is the political backdrop: as the WaPo reports, "with Mexico heading into a July presidential election, any action by Peña Nieto that could be seen as kowtowing to Trump or buckling under U.S. pressure risks damaging the prospects for his Institutional Revolutionary Party."
“The problem is that President Trump has painted himself, President Peña Nieto and the bilateral relationship into a corner,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.
“Even from the get-go, the idea of Mexico paying for the wall was never going to fly. His relationship with Mexico isn’t strategically driven. It’s not even business; it’s personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that’s a huge problem. It could end up with the U.S. asking itself, ‘Who lost Mexico?’ ”
Even as the topic of wall payment remains a diplomatic dead end, the two countries continue to negotiate on NAFTA, which Trump has called a horrible deal for the U.S. that led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Trump last month indicated that he could be flexible with Nafta talks ahead of Mexico’s July presidential election - and then repeated his threat to withdraw if he can’t reach an agreement that’s “fair” for America.
Meanwhile, both governments have strived to portray their ties as strong and the exchanges between their leaders as smooth.
“We enjoy a great relationship with Mexico and the two administrations have been working for a year to deepen our cooperation across a range of issues including security, immigration, trade and economics,” Michael Anton, the top spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council, said in a statement.
Ironically, Mexican Foreign Secretary - both current and former - Luis Videgaray called the U.S.-Mexico relationship closer under Trump than in previous administrations.
“I think in many ways the relationship today is more fluid,” Videgaray said earlier this month in Mexico City alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “It’s closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people, but that’s a fact of life.”
Trump’s 2016 visit to Mexico led to the resignation of Videgaray as finance minister after his involvement in arranging a meeting with Kushner became public. Mr. Videgaray returned to Mr. Peña Nieto´s cabinet as foreign minister after Trump won the U.S. election.
Plans for the meeting were originally announced on Feb. 14, after Videgaray visited Washington and met with Trump administration officials including Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
Pena Nieto last visited the White House to meet with President Barack Obama in July 2016. Trump hasn’t visited Mexico as president. Pena Nieto, who leaves office in December, still hopes the meeting will happen at some point, according to Bloomberg.