Mexican president used two issues important to Trump to warm relations: trade and a militarised border

One expert warns Trump could still turn on Amlo and impose tariffs on some Mexican goods before Election Day 

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Wednesday 08 July 2020 16:11 BST
Mexico elects Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as president

Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador inherited a toxic relationship with Donald Trump when he took office in December 2018. Eighteen months later, he is headed to the White House for a Wednesday summit with the US president.

“Tomorrow, I’m meeting with the president of Mexico,” the US president said on Tuesday in a striking change from his candidacy and the early years of his presidency. “I say that to the media because it’s going to be quite a meeting. He’s a good man. He’s a friend of mine. And we have a great relationship with Mexico.”

Mr Lopez Obrador had little interest in continuing the cross-border feud with his country’s northern neighbour. Major parts of how he warmed US-Mexico relations were vintage Trump: a trade pact and tens of thousands of Mexican troops deployed to the two countries’ border.

The former handed Mr Trump a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) he promised as a candidate in 2016 to get rid of. The latter made Mr Lopez Obrador at least seem like a tough leader in the eyes of the US president who appears drawn to hardline world figures like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others.

Mr Trump railed against Mexico in 2015 and 2016 when he was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. He accused Mexico of allowing “rapists” and “killers” to move through its territory from points south and enter the United States. He promised that the Mexican government would pay for his proposed southern border wall. And he said Mexico City was taking advantage of the United States via Nafta.

“I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!” Mr Trump tweeted on 30 June 2015, two weeks after declaring himself a presidential candidate.

During a March 2016 press conference, a few months before he accepted the Republican nomination, Mr Trump declared that “Mexico is going to pay for the wall”.

“We have a trade deficit with Mexico of $58bn a year – $58bn. The wall is going to cost $10bn. It’s so easy,” he told reporters then. “I’ve had these guys that I’m on the stage with go, ‘You don’t really mean Mexico is going to pay for the wall. One, as sure as you’re standing there, 100 per cent, Mexico’s going to pay, 100 per cent.”

Three and a half years later, Mexico has not written a check to pay for the sections of barrier – mostly replacing existing structures – that the Trump administration has installed. The US president insists the trade deal he and his Mexican counterpart will celebrate this week as it goes into effect includes provisions that will bring funds into American coffers that essentially are border barrier payments; experts and Democratic lawmakers, however, sharply dismiss that thinking.

Wall payments or no wall payments, the contrast between candidate Trump’s statements and those of President Trump in 2020 are staggering.

‘Really great guy’

“During the past two months, we’ve seen the lowest number of illegal border crossings in many years. Illegal immigration is down 84 per cent from this time last year. Illegal crossings from Central America are down 97 per cent,” Mr Trump said on 23 June in Yuma, Arizona.

“If you look at so many of the different crimes that come through the border, they’re stopped. We’ve implemented groundbreaking agreements with Mexico. I want to thank the president of Mexico. He’s really a great guy,” the American president said. “I think he’ll be coming into Washington pretty soon, to the White House.”

Moments later, Mr Trump signalled his counterpart’s decision to fortify the US-Mexico border scored him plenty of points.

“So we’ve had 27,000, 28,000, 25,000 Mexican soldiers are on our border making sure people aren’t coming across,” he said at an event near the border during which his acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, praised him for having “demanded Mexico step up their efforts.

“And we’re seeing more and more migrants being turned around at Mexico’s southern border before they reach our own,” Mr Wolf said as his boss nodded.

A few months earlier, during a 20 March coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Mr Trump referred to Mexico as an American “partner” – a stunning description for those who closely followed his anti-immigration campaign and the first two years of his term.

“And so we are working very closely with Mexico, very, very closely with Canada,” he said of efforts to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. “The relationship has never been better.”

One thing any world leader can do to receive admiration from the 45th American president is implement a policy he has, or endorse an idea he has floated. Mr Lopez Obrador found that out again earlier this year. Mr Trump in March praised him for “taking action to secure our own southern border and suspend air travel from Europe. So we’re coordinating very closely the air travel going to Mexico and then trying to come into the United States.”

Mr Trump said the actions his government and that of Mr Lopez Obrador had taken would “save countless lives”.

Tariffs still ‘on the menu’?

Carin Zissis of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas says a flashpoint for the warmer relationship came in January, when the man known by an acronym built by the first letters of his four names, Amlo, deployed his troops to Mexico’s border with Guatemala to confront another migrant group trying reach the United States, something Mr Trump used unsuccessfully during the 2018 congressional midterm elections to try driving up the conservative turnout.

“Amlo promised on the campaign trail that Mexico wouldn’t be anybody’s piñata, but he’s sought to avoid direct conflict with the White House since taking office. That said, it can be difficult to anticipate when Trump will seek to apply pressure, given that criticism of Mexico helped him win the presidency in 2016,” according to Ms Zissis. “As the United States gets deeper into what’s certain to be a contentious electoral season, Trump could sell the immigration commitments he’s gained from Mexico as a win, or he could keep pushing for more.”

While the two leaders will no doubt tout the trade deal between them and also with Canada – but without Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who declined a White House invitation – experts say Washington and Mexico City could still clash on trade matters this year.

“Even without the USMCA in place, US-Mexico trade increased 0.5 per cent last year, which, when coupled with the large decrease in US-China trade, positioned Mexico as the top trading partner of the United States for 2019,” according to Michael Camunez of the Pacific Council on International Policy. “And even once the USMCA is in place, it seems unlikely that US threats to impose tariffs on Mexican exports will disappear. With Florida tomato growers pressing for protection in an election year, tariffs are already on the menu for 2020.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in