MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump on Wednesday, August 31, stood alongside Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and reiterated his campaign declaration that the United States can and will erect a border wall to stem illegal immigration.
Adopting a polished tone and praising Mexico’s “amazing people,” Trump portrayed the issues of illegal immigration, drug trafficking and weapons smuggling as common challenges for the allied neighbors.
After a year of lobbing insults across the border, the provocative billionaire candidate made a surprise visit to Mexico in the heat of the US presidential race, seeking to seize control of the narrative and portray himself as a capable statesman on the international stage.
“We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall on any of its borders,” Trump said at the presidential residence in Mexico City after he and Peña Nieto held closed-door talks.
He said they did not discuss who would foot the bill, despite Trump persistently stating throughout his campaign that Mexico would bear the financial burden for the highly controversial project.
“We didn’t discuss who pays for the wall,” Trump said.
Peña Nieto however had a clear message for Trump: Mexico will not pay.
“At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter after the meeting.
Al inicio de la conversación con Donald Trump dejé claro que México no pagará por el muro.— Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN) August 31, 2016
After that “the conversation covered other issues, and proceeded in a respectful manner,” he wrote.
It was a day of high drama for both men, who found themselves face to face after exchanging criticisms from afar over the past year.
In a statement, the Trump campaign described the visit as “the first part of the discussion and a relationship builder between Mr. Trump and President Peña Nieto.
“It was not a negotiation, and that would have been inappropriate. It is unsurprising that they hold two different views on this issue, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”
Trump launched his campaign last year by declaring that Mexico was sending “rapists” and other criminals across the border. Months later, Peña Nieto likened Trump’s isolationist positions to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and fascist Benito Mussolini.
On Wednesday, Peña Nieto was more diplomatic, declaring the talks “constructive” and saying it was crucial to transform the countries’ mutual border into “a joint opportunity.”
“Even though we may not agree on everything, I trust that together we’ll be able to find better prosperity and security.”
But he did not hide the fact that many in his country have felt the sting of Trump’s harsh rhetoric.
“Mexican people felt hurt by the comments made,” Peña Nieto said. “But I’m sure that the genuine interest is to build a relationship that will give both of our societies better welfare.”
Trump stunned the political establishment with his sudden trip south of the border just hours before a highly anticipated speech on immigration policy in Phoenix, Arizona.
He arrived to a storm of criticism.
“Trump not welcome in Mexico, not by me nor the 130 million Mexicans,” tweeted the country’s former president Vicente Fox, who dropped an “f-bomb” on television in February when describing Trump’s border wall plan.
The visit came just 69 days before the US presidential election, with Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in most polls.
Peña Nieto, whose approval rating has plummeted since his 2012 election, also invited Clinton, but the former secretary of state’s campaign has announced no plans for a visit.
She had choice words for Trump, however, upbraiding him for his Mexican “photo op” and signaling it was no way to build leadership credibility.
“It certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in our on neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again. That is not how it works,” Clinton said at an American Legion meeting in Ohio.
Trump has routinely assailed Mexicans who illegally cross the border into the United States.
Hardline immigration policies are a key plank of his campaign, but Trump has mulled whether to soften his positions, particularly the call early in his campaign to deport some 11 million undocumented migrants living in the shadows.
His Phoenix speech is seen as an opportunity to clarify his policy.
Trump has vacillated between reaching out to minorities and returning to the anti-immigration rhetoric admired by his most ardent supporters, mainly white working-class males.
Trump also modulated his criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has blamed for the outflow of millions of US manufacturing jobs.
While routinely bashing it on the campaign trail as “the worst trade deal” in US history, he said Wednesday the pact “must be improved upon to ensure that workers… benefit from fair and reciprocal trade.” – Rappler.com