On Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited President Trump as part of his first official international trip, but the day’s agenda in Washington offered no clues as to what made the trip really necessary in the first place, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

In the morning, rather than requesting to meet with Democratic lawmakers or immigrant groups, López Obrador placed floral wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial and at a statue of Mexican leader Benito Juárez. His meeting with Trump at the White House was carefully choreographed, meant to set the stage for a photo-op to celebrate the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the new trade pact that has replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In his remarks, López Obrador thanked Trump for his kindness toward Mexico — a truly bizarre statement directed at one of the most xenophobic presidents of modern times. What the Mexican leader gained from this visit might remain a mystery, but Trump will surely use Wednesday’s signing ceremony as a campaign prop.

The timing and setup of the visit was puzzling from the start. Originally conceived as a trilateral affair, it devolved into a one-day trip after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wisely canceled. Rather than postponing his own trip to Washington, López Obrador carried on. It was a strange decision for a president who has removed Mexico from the global stage. Before Wednesday, Mexico’s president hadn’t traveled abroad. He has delegated every major aspect of the bilateral relationship in more trying and urgent times, even when his presence as head of state might have been warranted. For example, he never visited Washington to take part in tense trade negotiations. He did not request a personal meeting with Trump when the administration threatened to impose tariffs if Mexico didn’t acquiesce to the implementation of Trump’s brutal immigration policies. He skipped the Group of 20 meeting in 2019.

That he chose to visit Trump to personally praise him and rejoice over a trade deal that’s already in force — during the middle of a health crisis and a U.S. presidential campaign, no less — is less a sign of heroism, like some of López Obrador’s sycophants parrot, but of capitulation.

For López Obrador it was also a missed opportunity to confront a man he has been criticizing, from afar, for years. As a candidate, López Obrador had harsh words for Trump’s nativist policies. In 2017, he toured the United States, speaking eloquently to immigrant communities whom he vowed to defend once in office. He collected those speeches in a fiery book: “Oye, Trump” (“Listen, Trump”). In it, López Obrador denounced Trump’s border wall as “a monument to hypocrisy and cruelty,” and compared the administration’s anti-Mexican rhetoric to Nazi Germany. “We cannot consent to a state policy that undermines the dignity of the legitimate interests of Mexicans and the nation,” López Obrador wrote.

He showed none of that bluster at the White House. Given an opportunity to personally call out Trump’s policies, he chose praise. “As in the best of times, instead of grievances toward myself and my country, we have received understanding and respect,” López Obrador said. In an astonishing turn of events, he then thanked Trump for “being increasingly respectful” of Mexicans in the United States. Trump, López Obrador said during Wednesday’s joint statement in the Rose Garden, has been “gentle and respectful” of Mexico.

This is, of course, both false and shocking. The Trump administration has imposed a list of terrible policies on the Mexican government, relentlessly persecuted millions of Mexican undocumented immigrants, threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and abused a similar number of Central American potential refugees, with López Obrador’s active collaboration.

López Obrador’s sympathizers will likely argue that this cynicism is actually a shrewd appeasement strategy. It is not. Subservience is never good diplomacy. Mexico’s full acquiescence to Trump’s demands on immigration, for example, has created a humanitarian catastrophe along the country’s northern border and has undermined Mexico’s compassionate tradition toward immigrants, to say nothing of López Obrador’s own campaign commitments to help migrants and refugees. Despite myriad promises, the Trump administration has not significantly invested in the development of southern Mexico or Central America. It has done little to crack down on gun trafficking and even less to close the loopholes that allow weapons of war to be legally purchased in the United States and then smuggled into Mexico. In the meantime, Trump continues to flaunt the border wall while his administration’s draconian immigration polices endure, including an unremitting assault on DACA recipients, more than half a million of which are Mexican.

As a candidate, López Obrador promised a bilateral bond based on mutual respect with the United States. As Trump’s first term comes to a close, Mexico’s president has garnered the opposite: a lopsided relationship based on American whims and demands and Mexican compliance and degrading gratitude. López Obrador leaves Washington empty-handed, having praised the most actively anti-Mexican U.S. president in recent memory.

No photo-op could hide that.

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