Trump, Mexican President Emphasize Respect But Clash on Border Wall

Trump and President Enrique Pena Nieto discussed immigration and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Updated on

Trump Calls Illegal Immigration a Humanitarian Disaster

Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came away from Wednesday's meeting in Mexico City with different accounts on whether they had discussed if Mexico would pay for a wall between the two nations in order to stem illegal immigration. 

Trump said the two discussed Trump's proposal to build the physical barrier, but not his plan to make Mexico pay for it. 

But hours after the meeting, Pena Nieto disputed that claim. 

"At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear Mexico will not pay for a wall," the Mexican president wrote on Twitter.

The Clinton campaign pounced on the differing accounts on whether the two men had addressed the topic of who would pay for the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

"Donald Trump has made his outlandish policy of forcing Mexico to pay for his giant wall the centerpiece of his campaign. But at the first opportunity to make good on his offensive campaign promises, Trump choked," John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, said in a statement.

Minutes later, after learning that Pena Nieto had disputed Trump's characterization of their meeting, Podesta added, "It turns out Trump didn't just choke, he got beat in the room and lied about it."

Clinton herself also weighed in. "Trump just failed his first foreign test," she wrote on Twitter. "Diplomacy isn't as easy as it looks."

As the dueling versions of their discussions gained attention on social media, the Trump campaign fired off its own statement. 

"Today was the first part of the discussion and a relationship builder between Mr. Trump and President Peña Nieto," Trump senior communications advisor Jason Miller said in a written statement. "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."

At the press conference directly following the meeting, Trump also said he wants to work on  "improving NAFTA,'' a trade accord he's called the "worst'' in history and one he's threatened to scuttle if it can't be renegotiated. 

Pena Nieto called the conversation with Trump "open and constructive.''

"We may not agree on various topics, but your presence here shows that we have much in common" Pena Nieto said. "The next president will find in my government a partner.''

The trip shines a spotlight on the Republican nominee’s fraught relationship with the Mexican leader and with U.S. voters of Mexican ancestry set to play an influential role in the November election.

Enrique Pena Nieto speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 22, 2016.

Enrique Pena Nieto speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 22, 2016.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Trump said when he announced his bid last year that Mexico sends “rapists” to America. Peña Nieto says Mexico won’t pay for a U.S. border wall, like Trump says it will, and has likened the billionaire’s rhetoric to that of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

The trip may help sharpen the focus on immigration policies Trump is set to speak about later Wednesday in Arizona after he and his allies sent mixed signals about whether he is softening his positions for general-election voters. Meeting with a head of state may also help Trump appear more presidential to some.

It also gave Trump a chance to show how he would handle himself in an international setting amid accusations from Democratic presidential nominee that he's temperamentally unfit to be president. 

Pena Nieto last Friday sent invitations to both the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns for the candidates to meet with him, his office said in an e-mail. Pena Nieto said Tuesday on Twitter that he had invited the U.S. candidates to talk about the bilateral relationship with Mexico, and added that he believes in dialogue to promote the interests of Mexico in the world as well as to protect Mexicans wherever they are.

Five Goals

Trump laid out a five goals that he said would increase prosperity in both countries if they work together: ending illegal immigration, not just from Mexico to the U.S. but also from Central America into Mexico, which he called a "humanitarian disaster''; recognizing the right of either country to build a secure, physical barrier at the border; joint efforts to dismantle drug cartels; improving Nafta to raise wages in both countries; and keeping manufacturing wealth in the hemisphere and jointly confronting the economic competition from China.

Pena Nieto chided Trump for some of his past remarks about Mexico.

"Mexican people felt hurt by the comments that had been made but I am sure that his genuine interest is to build a relationship that will give both of our countries better welfare,'' Pena Nieto said.

Pointedly, Pena Nieto cited the benefits of trade between the two nations. Trump has criticized and vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. The Mexican president, while saying he's open to modernizing the accord, said it has kept jobs in North America.

Trump said he "shared my strong view'' that Nafta has been a bigger benefit to Mexico than it has been to the U.S.

"I don't think that trade should be considered as zero sum game, where one wins and the other loses, on the contrary, it should be an effort that generates value for both parts and makes our region, North America, the most competitive," he said.

 On the border and immigration, Pena Nieto said illegal immigration into the U.S. has been falling for decades and that Mexicans are contributing to U.S. prosperity. He reiterated Mexico's complaints about the flow of cash and firearms into Mexico.


The meeting at the Mexican president's compound in Mexico City was announced just hours before it took place, but the agenda was hammered out by both sides after five days of discussions, a Trump campaign official said

Pena Nieto said he also hoped to meet with Clinton, the Democratic nominee and a former secretary of state under President Barack Obama.

Clinton made reference to Trump's trip to Mexico City, and his past remarks about Mexico, earlier Wednesday during a speech  to  the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati. 

“People have to get to know that they can count on you, that you won’t say one thing one day and something totally different the next,” Clinton said. “And it certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again. That is not how it works.’’

She said American leadership requires “more than a photo op” and takes consistency and reliability.

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment on Trump’s trip other than to tell reporters traveling with the president to Asia for a summit, “The White House is not offering any advice to the Trump campaign.”

Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential and a vocal Trump critic, said the Mexico trip was a waste of time for the candidate at this point in the race.

"He wouldn't be doing this if he were winning. Hillary Clinton is in Ohio; he's in Mexico,'' Stevens said. "The one thing every candidate has the exact same amount of is time. How many battleground states has Donald Trump been in and how many has Hillary been in?"

Pena Nieto visited Obama in Washington in July the day after Trump spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. That same month, the Mexican leader told CNN his country would not put up the border-wall cash.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, an immigration hardliner who serves as a top adviser to Trump, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani accompanied Trump on the trip. A person close to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a surrogate and adviser to Trump who is leading his White House transition planning, said the governor was involved in Trump’s decision to make the trip.

—With assistance from Jonathan Roeder, Sahil Kapur, Ben Brody, Terrence Dopp, Justin Sink, Nacha Cattan, Mike Dorning and Joshua Green.