MEXICO CITY — President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and other top officials here Wednesday amid fresh strains over possible steel and aluminum tariffs and the ongoing feud about a border wall.
Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, has been the designated point person for the United States’ relationship with Mexico since the 2016 presidential campaign. But ties have become more complicated in recent weeks, given that the White House recently downgraded Kushner’s security clearance, raising questions about how effective he might be in a meeting with a head of state or whether there are key issues he might not be informed about.
The Washington Post also recently reported that Mexico was one of at least four countries to have private discussions about how to manipulate Kushner by taking advantage of his financial troubles and lack of foreign policy experience.
Kushner is making his first visit to Mexico in his high-level role in the administration, leading a delegation that includes State Department and National Security Council officials. A senior administration official said Kushner was meeting with Peña Nieto and Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray to explore ways to expand cooperation on issues such as security, immigration and trade.
Last month, Peña Nieto postponed a planned visit to the White House after a tense and confrontational phone conversation with Trump that focused on which country would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall. It was the second time Peña Nieto had called off a Washington visit because of disagreements with Trump.
During the call, the two leaders discussed a Kushner trip as the next step in moving forward, according to the U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the trip on the record and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mexico and the United States have been working on more than a dozen bilateral agreements, relating to law enforcement cooperation on fighting drugs, economic development for Central America and border security, among other issues. There were plans to announce those agreements during Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington, but once that got canceled, officials on both sides scrambled to see whether they could be salvaged ahead of Mexico’s elections in July, according to a Mexican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give candid views.
“This is literally the last attempt from both governments to nail something down and do it quickly,” the official said. “You have a lot of time — we don’t.”
“We’ll see what can be saved,” the official added.
But Kushner’s arrival comes as the relationship is under serious strain. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the prospect of talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement failing. After the most recent round of negotiations, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said that the three participating countries — the United States, Mexico and Canada — have agreed on only six of roughly 30 NAFTA chapters and that “our time is running very short.”
Those already fraught negotiations were further complicated by Trump announcing new steel and aluminum tariffs. Trump has said that Canada and Mexico could be exempt from the tariffs if they reach a deal on a new version of NAFTA, but both countries have criticized the proposal.
“As a key NORAD and NATO ally, and as the number-one customer of American steel, Canada would view any trade restrictions on Canadian steel and aluminum as absolutely unacceptable,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said this week.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Mexico and Canada, as well as other countries, might be exempted from the new tariffs. “We expect that the president will sign something by the end of the week, and there are potential carve-outs for Mexico and Canada based on national security,” she said.
The Mexican government would be likely to embrace such a decision, and it could add momentum to the faltering NAFTA talks.
If Mexico is not exempted, said Luis de la Calle, a former trade negotiator for Mexico, “we have to retaliate in a way that has political impact in the United States, in the hope that the U.S. removes the tariffs.”
Kushner has been a key point of contact between Trump’s inner circle and the Mexican government since the campaign. Back then, Videgaray, who was Mexico’s finance minister, coordinated with Kushner to arrange a visit by Trump to Mexico City in August 2016. That trip turned into a political debacle for Peña Nieto; Mexicans were outraged that their leader would invite a candidate who had expressed such vitriol toward Mexicans on the campaign trail. In the backlash, Videgaray lost his job, but once Trump won the election, Videgaray was recruited back into the fold as foreign minister, in part because of his link with Kushner.
Videgaray has traveled frequently to Washington over the past year, often meeting with Kushner and others, but that has yet to yield any relief for Mexico on the wall, the fate of the young immigrants in the United States known as “dreamers” or the likelihood of a new free-trade agreement.
Kushner met with Videgaray at the Foreign Ministry about 10 a.m. Wednesday and arrived at Los Pinos, the presidential palace, to see Peña Nieto after 1 p.m., according to Mexican media accounts.
“His visit is very surprising in this moment,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexican American journalist who often works on national security issues.
“How will he carry out negotiations with foreign countries when his clearance level is less than the people who are with him?” she said. “He’ll have less information than the people he’s accompanying.”
Seung Min Kim in Washington and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.