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The weirdly great relationship between Trump and Mexico’s new leftist president

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was sworn in as Mexican president Dec. 1, promising a radical change in a country struggling with violence, poverty and corruption. (Video: Reuters)
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MEXICO CITY — Of all the foreign countries targeted by President Trump’s tweet-bashing, Mexico holds a special place. He has called it a “totally corrupt” country with “a massive crime problem” that has done “little, if not NOTHING,” to stop U.S.-bound migrants. The election of a combative leftist as Mexico’s new president seemed destined to drive the relationship to a new low.

And yet, five months after Andrés Manuel López Obrador won a resounding victory, he has defied expectations on both sides of the border. He and Trump publicly praise one another. Their administrations have worked fairly smoothly on such hot-button issues as illegal migration and the renegotiation of the North American trade deal. The U.S. government is even looking with interest at López Obrador’s proposal for a multibillion-dollar international aid package to deter Central American migration — although the idea is in its early stages, American officials say.

In the endless quest by foreign leaders to understand and manage Trump, López Obrador marks the latest example of a savvy politician who bonds with the mercurial U.S. president, at least temporarily. 

On the phone, the two presidents have mused about people’s expectations they would be at each other’s throats, one senior Trump administration official said. “But it’s not the case,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “It’s a relationship off to a good start. They do like each other.” 

Many analysts believe it is only a matter of time before the two leaders clash. They are vastly different in style — López Obrador is an austere leftist who doesn’t own a credit card, while Trump favors 24-karat gold faucets and private jets. 

Then there is policy. López Obrador, widely known by his initials, AMLO, is a longtime defender of migrants’ rights, while the fight against illegal immigration is a core Trump issue. 

The wildly ambitious plan of Mexico’s President AMLO

But so far, there is far less turbulence in the relationship than occurred during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, a more conservative, free-market-oriented politician. Officials on both sides say that Trump and his Mexican counterpart respect each other as plain-speaking nationalists who built anti-establishment movements. While journalistic descriptions of López Obrador as “the Trump of Mexico” are overstated, they may have endeared him to the U.S. leader.

“The president likes anyone called ‘the Trump of X,’ ” said Fernando Cutz, who served on the National Security Council early in Trump’s presidency. “He likes thinking he’s created a political movement that’s broader than the United States, that’s worldwide. It’s in many ways like him winning an election.”

Until recently, it was hard to imagine a more combustible pair of politicians than Trump and López Obrador. As he prepared to run for president, the Mexican leftist slammed Trump as “an irresponsible bully” and a “neo-fascist.” In June 2017, López Obrador released a book of his speeches defending the rights of Mexican migrants called “Listen Up, Trump.” In it, he compared Trump’s attitude toward Mexicans to the way Hitler referred to Jews. 

But as it became clear López Obrador would win the election, his language became increasingly diplomatic. After his victory, he wrote Trump a seven-page letter detailing his domestic agenda and proposing “a new stage in the relationship” based on respect and common interests.

In a passage that raised eyebrows in Mexico, López Obrador even compared his electoral triumph with Trump’s, saying they both managed to “displace the political establishment.” 

López Obrador, a past critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, quickly demonstrated his willingness to work with the Trump administration. Even before the new president took office, his representatives joined the talks on reforming the treaty, agreeing to nearly everything negotiated by the outgoing Mexican government. One major issue divided the Mexican delegation — how much to enshrine Mexico’s free-market oil reforms in the treaty — and López Obrador boasted that Trump wound up taking his side, accepting language that emphasized Mexico’s sovereignty. 

“Donald Trump said, ‘Let’s go with what the president-elect of Mexico wants,’ ” López Obrador told a rally in October. (The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not respond to a request for comment on the claim.) 

Mexican analysts and officials said that the new president’s attitude toward NAFTA reflected his pragmatism. Mexico’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with its northern neighbor.

“What he has very clear is, once you’re president, you have to be looking for everything that is in favor of Mexico,” said Tatiana Clouthier, who served as López Obrador’s campaign manager.

While the new Mexican leader is seeking good relations with Trump, though, he is not likely to be a pushover. López Obrador is a far more powerful president than Peña Nieto, whose popularity shriveled amid numerous corruption scandals. Peña Nieto was widely seen as being deferential to Trump and getting little in return for it. Twice, he canceled meetings with Trump over the U.S. president’s insistence on building a giant border wall funded by Mexico.

López Obrador took office Dec. 1, after capturing 53 percent of the vote in a three-way race and winning control of Congress. While Trump felt he could bully the former Mexican president, “AMLO will talk right back,” said a U.S. congressional staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. “Trump’s advisers have told him as much.”

Indeed, Trump spoke by phone to López Obrador on Wednesday and did not even mention the border wall, according to the Mexican leader. “It was a pleasant conversation,” he told reporters Thursday. 

Although López Obrador’s agenda is focused on domestic issues such as poverty, he has an important reason for getting along with Trump: The Mexican president wants support for a massive development program aimed at keeping Central American migrants at home.

López Obrador said he brought up the proposal with Trump in their Wednesday phone call. Trump’s team has showed interest in the idea, which still lacks key details, according to several U.S. officials.

American officials have publicly praised López Obrador’s team for its willingness to try to resolve such issues as the caravan of thousands of Central Americans that recently reached the U.S. border. The Mexican government is providing shelter and offering work visas to the migrants, most of whom are waiting to petition for asylum in the United States. The Trump administration is seeking to have Mexico host the migrants through their entire asylum process, which could take several months or longer. Senior members of López Obrador’s government have indicated they might support such a plan but have yet to formally agree to it. 

“We want to find a solution. We want to find common ground” on how to deal with the growing number of Central Americans migrating illegally, said a senior Mexican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues.

Of course, there is no telling how long the U.S.-Mexican rapprochement will last. In the past, the U.S. president has established friendships with everyone from France’s Emmanuel Macron to Japan’s Shinzo Abe, only to see relations chill over trade, the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea and other issues. 

And if Trump has a base to attend to, so does López Obrador. Mexico’s left has traditionally been suspicious of U.S. involvement in the country’s anti-drug efforts and has been close to anti-American governments in such countries as Cuba and Venezuela.

López Obrador promised a lot. Now he’s starting to deliver, and that’s making some Mexicans anxious.

The wildly ambitious plan of Mexico’s President AMLO

Mexico’s new leader is riding a wave of anti-corruption furor that’s changing Latin America

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