MEXICO CITY — The leaked transcript of a phone call between President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto published Thursday by The Washington Post left some Mexicans flabbergasted, even in a country where politics is commonly called surreal and where embarrassing phone calls by politicians are often filtered to the media.
One popular Mexican radio host compared the January phone call to a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Others complained that Trump was using tough talk to threaten the Mexican leader as if he were a Trump employee.
Peña Nieto appeared patient throughout the call, winning some rare praise from a population unhappy with his presidency. He politely told Trump — again — that Mexico would not pay to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
“My position has been and will continue to be very firm, saying that Mexico cannot pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto told Trump.
Trump replied: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that, and I cannot live with that.” Later in the call Trump said, “If you’re not going to say that Mexico is going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that.”Trump also boasted that he could make Peña Nieto so popular that he could get lawmakers to change the Mexican constitution so that he could seek reelection.
The Post obtained the transcripts of phone calls Trump made a week after his inauguration to Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Of the call to the Mexican president, Fernando Dworak, an independent political analyst in Mexico City, said: “It’s one thing to negotiate as a businessman and another as a president. Giving instructions to leaders of other countries is following this script, which is not only imperial but completely useless for diplomacy.”
Others, however, criticized Peña Nieto’s posture during the call and said the Mexican leader needed to be more assertive in sticking up for Mexican interests.
“If the Mexican president had taken a clearer and stronger stand, he could have been able to improve his position internally — politically and public-opinion wise,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics in Mexico City. “The position he assumed from the beginning was weak. Maybe because he is weak.”
Bravo conceded, however, that Peña Nieto “is trying to navigate a very difficult situation. The leaking of the conversation portrays him generally in a good light. He is making an effort. He is being reasonable.”
Parts of the transcript were especially eye-popping, such as when Trump appeared to be offering political assistance to Peña Nieto. “I want you to be so popular that your people will call for a constitutional amendment in Mexico so that you can run again for another six years,” Trump said. Mexico’s constitution prohibits presidential reelection, and Peña Nieto is scheduled to leave office in December 2018.
According to some, Peña Nieto at first appeared to be adopting a “son-in-law strategy.” Peña Nieto appointed Luis Videgaray — who proposed the Trump trip to Mexico last summer — as his foreign minister, perhaps hoping to leverage Videgaray’s apparent relationship with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
“I did not want to meet with anybody,” Trump said in the phone call, referring to the August meeting. “It was only because of a very good relationship that Jared Kushner has with Luis that these two decided to meet and discuss, but I was not really in favor of the meeting.”
The transcript leaked as Mexico prepares for renegotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Analysts say the Peña Nieto administration appears to be trying to keep some version of the pact intact, as 80 percent of Mexican exports head to the United States, and does not want to antagonize Trump.
Some in Mexico saw the phone call as part of a pattern of missed opportunities to raise issues of importance to Mexico while leaving clear that the country is trying to save NAFTA at all costs.
“Yet another episode . . . where the renegotiation of NAFTA takes priority, and Mexico’s diplomacy is reduced to submission and irrelevance,” said José Merino, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
But others see little upside in engaging Trump in a verbal battle, especially for Peña Nieto, who has a preference for protocol and doesn’t handle hecklers or off-the-cuff comments very smoothly. Provoking the U.S. president would risk a rerun of Trump’s ill-fated trip to Mexico City last August, where he appeared alongside Peña Nieto and talked about Mexico paying for the wall as his Mexican counterpart stood by.
“It’s a chance to think that Peña Nieto hasn’t acted so badly by avoiding useless confrontations with a bully,” Dworak said. “There’s nothing to be gained, and it only risks strengthening Trump.”
A Jan. 27 statement from Los Pinos, the Mexican president’s office, said that during their conversation the leaders had broached the border wall payment issue and that “both presidents recognized their clear and very public differences . . . and agreed to resolve these differences as part of an integral discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship.”
The call came after Peña Nieto canceled a Jan. 31 trip to Washington, responding to a Trump tweet that it would be best not to visit if the border wall wasn’t part of the agenda. The two presidents finally met at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last month, where again Trump spoke of having Mexico pay for a border wall and Peña Nieto sat silent, though Videgaray said they didn’t hear what Trump said.
In Australia, Turnbull won kudos for his straight-forward negotiating style and willingness to push a new president to accept a politically unpalatable deal cut by his Democrat predecessor.
But refugee advocates were horrified by what they saw as the prime minster’s indifference to refugees under Australian care in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Turnbull’s remark that a “Nobel prize winning genius” who arrived by boat wouldn’t be allowed entry to Australia was seen by some Australians as exposing the government’s cynicism toward its own tough immigration policy, which is designed to deter refugees and economic migrants arriving by boat from Indonesia.
The conversation with Trump shows “Malcolm Turnbull is not at all interested in the suffering, treatment and indeed torture inflicted on innocent people,” the leader of the Greens Party, Richard Di Natale, said in a phone interview. “He’s more interested in his own political survival.”
Speaking before the transcript of the conversation was published, the top public servant at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Trump-Turnbull phone call hadn’t hurt relations, a position both men had stated publicly.
“Neither of them think it’s a big deal,” Frances Adamson said Thursday in Sydney. “You’ve heard them talk about it.”
Nonetheless, the revelations come at a politically awkward moment for Turnbull. A split in his center-right Liberal Party over same-sex marriage is undermining his leadership, which has been hurt by poor poll numbers over the past year.
A special meeting of federal Liberal parliamentarians on Monday to resolve the issue is shaping up as a test of Turnbull’s ability to lead a party split between conservatives and liberals.
Patrick reported from Sydney.