Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico was a resounding success.
After weeks of scrutiny over his credentials for higher office, his moral standing — even his sanity — Trump needed to restore some sense of legitimacy and strength to his flailing campaign. What better way to do so than to stand, statesman-like, next to the president of Mexico? Trump played the role to perfection. Subdued and even solemn, he owned the proceedings. Trump chose when and how he wanted to visit Mexico, a country he has insulted and maligned for more than a year. He established the meeting’s agenda, laying out a five-point plan for the bilateral relationship in a potential Trump presidency. Trump even chose who got to ask questions during the brief news conference that followed the usual statements, deftly placing himself on equal footing with Peña Nieto. A master of optics, Trump used the setting to his advantage, calling Peña Nieto “a friend” and conveniently shaking his hand for front-page-ready photos. He avoided anything resembling an apology and, albeit in more careful terms than before, stood by the construction of a border barrier.
Some slammed Trump for not demanding Peña Nieto pay for the infamous wall, but such criticism misses the point. Trump’s goal in Mexico was not confrontation. In fact, it was the exact opposite: the international debut of “diplomatic Trump,” a man who dutifully praises his host, stresses common ground over conflict. Trump’s take on a real presidential candidate came in the unlikeliest stage imaginable: Los Pinos, the Mexican president’s official residence. Just a few hours later, in Phoenix, Trump would put his new perceived legitimacy to immediate use, giving a ferocious speech on immigration policy that repeated all of his insults and boasts, and then taunted “wonderful” Mexican leaders by saying they’d pay for the wall, even if “they don’t know it yet.”
As for Peña Nieto, Trump’s visit should be seen as a new low for an already embattled president.
Whoever had the idea to offer an open invitation to Mexico to both Hillary Clinton and Trump placed Peña Nieto in an impossible bind once Trump accepted. After news broke of Trump’s surprising plans to visit Mexico on Wednesday — just before his Phoenix immigration speech, no less — Mexican social media quickly condemned the historically unpopular president, questioning his judgment, political acumen and even his dignity. Under such pressure, the options for Peña Nieto to emerge unscathed or even victorious from his meeting with Trump grew scarce.
The Mexican president’s controversial generosity, an ill-timed and unnecessary act of diplomatic hospitality, could only be reciprocated with a public apology from Trump, an unlikely outcome if there ever was one. Instead, Peña Nieto was left with something his administration has puzzlingly resisted from the beginning of Trump’s political ascendance: He fact-checked Donald Trump, lecturing the Republican candidate on the benefits of the bilateral relationship and the contributions of Mexican Americans in the United States. But Peña Nieto stopped well short of demanding an apology or setting the record straight over who would pay for Trump’s wall. His promises to “defend” Mexicans rang empty when he stood silently as Trump quickly noted construction bills would be discussed in future meetings.
Peña Nieto intervened once during the question and answer session — but only to offer a bizarre rationale for Trump’s previous outbursts against Mexicans, what Peña Nieto called “misunderstandings.” “Mexican people have been hurt by the comments that have been made,” said Peña Nieto, who then, bewilderingly, immediately excused Trump: “I am sure that his genuine interest has been to build a relationship that will improve both of our societies.” Trump smiled, his bullying having received a presidential seal of approval.
A few hours later, Peña Nieto took to Twitter to clarify his position on the border wall. “In the beginning of my conversation with Donald Trump, I explained that Mexico would not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto wrote.
On his way to Arizona by then, Trump didn’t reply. He had already had the last word, back in Mexico.