Would-be U.S. president Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto are two of the most despised and hated politicians by Mexicans on both sides of the border. Peña Nieto has been accused of corruption and plagiarism — charges that he denies — and, so far, more than 52,000 Mexicans have been violently killed during his presidency. Trump, meanwhile, has centered his presidential campaign around attacking undocumented Mexican immigrants and on building a 1,900-mile wall along the southern U.S. border.
So they made for a strange couple Wednesday in Mexico City: It was the meeting of the most unpopular.
The numbers are staggering. Sixty-six percent of Mexicans think that Peña Nieto has done a bad job as president. It’s the worst showing for any Mexican president since the newspaper Reforma started polling in 1995. Trump, for his part, is not doing any better with Latinos in the United States: 80 percent of Hispanics have a negative opinion of the Republican candidate, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. With such poor support from Latinos, nobody — not even Trump — can win the White House. (A disclosure I’ve made before: My daughter, Paola Ramos, works for the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent.)
The timing for the hurried meeting was completely off: It was just hours before Trump’s speech on immigration in Phoenix, and just one day before Peña Nieto’s State of the Union address. Not only that; Mexicans are still mourning the death of a musical legend, Juan Gabriel.
The meeting was never going to be easy, no matter what. Trump had tweeted Feb. 24, 2015, that Mexico had a “corrupt court system.” A few months later, when he announced his presidential campaign, he infamously said about Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Peña Nieto took 265 days to respond. But when he did, the Mexican president criticized Trump’s “strident rhetoric” and compared Trump to two tyrants, saying “that’s how Mussolini got in, that’s how Hitler got in.”
So why did they meet for more than an hour? Because both of them thought they could win. But, in the end, only Trump did.
Trump didn’t change his immigration proposals one bit. He still wants a wall. “We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall on any of its borders to stop the illegal movement of people, drugs and weapons,” he said after the meeting. Who will pay for the wall? “That will be for a later day,” he responded. (Later on, Peña Nieto insisted that he did tell Trump in the meeting that Mexico wouldn’t pay for it.)
Trump also showed he is a doer; a meeting that would ordinarily have taken months to arrange by the U.S and Mexican bureaucracies was put together in just a few hours. Like it or not, he is imposing his own agenda on news organizations and forcing Clinton’s campaign to react to it.
He left Mexico City with his immigration plan still intact and without offering an apology to the Mexican people. Not only that, he took full control of the news conference, taking a few questions in English, while his host, Peña Nieto, waited patiently.
When his turn came, Peña Nieto said that his “responsibility is to defend the people of Mexico.” Without addressing Trump directly, the president said Mexicans are “honest and hard-working people . . . and deserve everybody’s respect.” But he neither challenged Trump nor told him publicly, as former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón have, that Mexico would not pay for Trump’s wall.
Peña Nieto was not ready for Trump. His indirect public statements after the meeting were weak and insufficient. He needed a big, defining moment confronting Trump to change the narrative of his failing presidency. However, he couldn’t pull it off. He is the loser. Again.
Last week Peña Nieto was accused of plagiarizing 28 percent of his college thesis — a charge confirmed by his university, Universidad Panamericana — and questions remain about a murky transaction in which his wife, Angélica Rivera, bought a $7 million home from a government contractor. Patriotism is, usually, the last resort of mediocre governments. Peña Nieto tried to use it during Trump’s visit. “My priority is to protect Mexicans wherever they are,” he said. But not even that worked.
And with the meeting over, Trump crossed the border again, an American problem once more.
A year ago this past week, I went to a Trump news conference in Dubuque, Iowa, to tell him that he couldn’t deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. But his bodyguard threw me out. Trump says I didn’t wait for my turn. I say he didn’t like my questions.
The fact remains that Trump is still proposing the largest mass deportations in U.S. history, far more than the 2.5 million immigrants already deported by President Obama. Trump insists on building a wall, denying citizenship to 4.5 million children who have at least one undocumented parent and canceling Obama’s executive actions to defer deportation for some undocumented immigrants (already partially blocked by a Supreme Court ruling).
It is too late for Trump to soften his immigration stance, and in Phoenix later Wednesday evening, he didn’t try. The damage has been done. He might have the lowest Hispanic support in decades. Mitt Romney lost in 2012 with 27 percent of Latinos and John McCain with 31 percent in 2008.
So maybe Trump won the meeting of the unpopular in Mexico City. His real test will come Nov. 8 in the United States. Unlike Peña Nieto, Latinos here won’t stay silent.