World News

Sharp Words Over Wall Halt Plans for Mexican President to Visit White House

Posted February 25, 2018 7:31 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s refusal to publicly drop his demand that Mexico pay for a wall on its border with the United States has derailed tentative plans for President Enrique Peña Nieto to make his first visit to the Trump White House next month, after a contentious telephone call last week reinflamed tensions on the issue, U.S. and Mexican officials said.

The two presidents agreed to scrap the trip after what had been planned as a diplomatic phone call to lay the groundwork for a meeting devolved into a bitter quarrel over the wall, a signature campaign promise of Trump’s that has long outraged Peña Nieto, who has said Mexico has no intention of paying for it.

The episode, reported earlier by The Washington Post, is the latest instance of Trump clashing sharply with the leader of a longtime ally, and of his penchant for eschewing diplomatic niceties in favor of hard-edge confrontation. It also demonstrates the degree to which the wall has come to be a major sticking point between the two neighbors, fraying decades of friendly relations and potentially blocking progress on other vital issues.

In the call, Trump balked at Peña Nieto’s attempts to secure a commitment that he would concede publicly during his visit to Washington that Mexico would not pay for the border wall, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a confidential conversation.

Trump grew exasperated, one official said, when Peña Nieto did not drop the matter and move on to other issues.

The blowup left officials on both sides deeply disappointed that months of constructive negotiations laying the groundwork for a meeting between the presidents and rebuilding trust between the governments had been scuttled in one phone conversation. The presidents were hoping to use Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington to sign a number of bilateral treaties covering the drug fight, border issues and other matters, and to discuss trade, including the status of their efforts to renegotiate NAFTA, the officials said.

By Sunday, both governments were eager to put the best possible face on the squabble, insisting that a meeting was still possible and that relations had not suffered an irreparable blow.

“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, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

After the call, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, spoke with Peña Nieto, and the two agreed they should keep working on areas of agreement, another administration official said. Both sides said a possible meeting between the two presidents remained on the table, though not on the timeline or in the style that had been planned.

The confrontation, according to a Mexican official, chilled the warmth and goodwill that had been built up between the two sides over months of negotiations, and sapped whatever level of trust had been developed after a difficult start to the relationship.

It was not the first time a disagreement over the wall spoiled the chance for the two presidents to establish a rapport.

In another testy call shortly after Trump was inaugurated last year, the president pressed Peña Nieto to stop saying publicly that he would not pay for the wall, saying that would be a precondition for future talks.

“If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” Trump said, according to a transcript of that call obtained by The Post and posted online last summer.

Peña Nieto told Trump during that call that the notion of Mexico paying for the wall was “completely unacceptable for Mexicans,” saying it would also be politically toxic for him to ever accept it. But Trump told Peña Nieto that he regarded his vow that Mexico would pay for the wall as a political imperative that he dared not relinquish.

The issue derailed the first attempt by the U.S. and Mexican governments to coordinate a meeting between the two presidents. During a January 2017 visit to Washington by Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray to arrange an announced visit, Trump took to Twitter to complain that Mexico seemed unwilling to pay for the border wall. Videgaray suspended all of his meetings and returned home. It was clear to Mexican officials then that there would be no benefit to Peña Nieto in meeting with Trump.

The collapse of the new, tentatively scheduled March visit was similarly abrupt. When Videgaray returned from a visit to Washington 10 days ago, he seemed pleased with his progress. The Mexican Foreign Ministry published a picture of Videgaray at a working lunch with Kushner; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser; and various members of the Cabinet, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Tucked into the account of the foreign minister’s trip was news that came as a surprise to Mexicans: The two sides had agreed to begin planning a meeting between Peña Nieto and Trump. The idea was met with astonishment in Mexico, where Trump is widely despised for his stream of insults against Mexican immigrants and his insistence on building a wall and sticking Mexico with the bill.

A cartoon last Sunday in the newspaper Reforma asked incredulously why the trip was planned, noting that Trump had not changed any of his policies, and depicted Trump smashing a pie into Peña Nieto’s face.

Before the phone conversation, the two sides had agreed — at the behest of Trump’s team — that the presidents should avoid talking about the thorny issues that had scuttled their first planned meeting, the Mexican official said, and Trump administration officials told their Mexican counterparts that they would ensure that the president would not dwell on past disagreements.

But during the call, the official said, Trump lost his temper. A White House official said Trump had simply become frustrated at Peña Nieto’s insistence on staying on the subject of the wall.

The Mexican government has more than the damage to Peña Nieto’s reputation to worry about. His hand-picked candidate to succeed him, former Finance Minister José Antonio Meade, is running in third place in the July 1 presidential election. A botched meeting between the two presidents could ricochet and hurt Meade’s struggling campaign.

The White House and the Mexican government issued separate short statements on Tuesday noting that the two presidents had spoken by phone to exchange condolences over the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, and a helicopter crash in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Mexican statement said the governments would continue their bilateral agenda “through the coordinated efforts of their teams.” Peña Nieto’s spokesman, Eduardo Sánchez, said Saturday night that the Mexican government had nothing else to add to that statement.

The White House said Trump had “underscored his commitment to expanding cooperation between the United States and Mexico on security, trade and immigration.”