Trump Keeps Obama Mexico Ambassador in Place in First Months

  • Roberta Jacobson has spent her career working on Mexico issues
  • Ambassador touts Nafta benefits as U.S. prepares for talks

Sec. Ross Says Canada, Mexico Open to Renegotiate Nafta

With less than one month to go before the start of formal talks to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, Donald Trump is keeping as his top envoy south of the border a Mexico expert promoted under Hillary Clinton and chosen by Barack Obama.

While Trump continues to demand Mexico pay billions of dollars for a wall to stop undocumented immigrants and calls Nafta the worst trade deal in history, the tone of his ambassador, Roberta Jacobson, couldn’t be more different.

“I have said it before and I will say it again: the United States could not be more fortunate to have Mexico as a neighbor," Jacobson said in a speech at a Fourth of July reception at her residence. Nafta has brought "benefits to all three nations.”

Jacobson has spent more than 30 years at the State Department focused on Mexico and Latin America, with a career spanning two Democratic and four Republican presidencies. In that time, she’s won the respect of Mexico’s leaders and become a trusted interlocutor with Washington. With Nafta talks scheduled to start on Aug. 16, the difference in the rhetoric between Jacobson and her ultimate boss show how unpredictable those negotiations have become.

Jacobson was nominated by Obama in June 2015, but her confirmation took almost a year, held up by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, over her role in improving the U.S. relationship with Cuba as assistant secretary of state. Trump has undone parts of that rapprochement.

Salsa Dancing

Jacobson worked for Clinton when Trump’s 2016 election opponent was Secretary of State under Obama and moved up the agency ladder during that time. The two got along well; when Clinton was photographed dancing salsa at a bar in Cartagena in a rare unscripted moment during the 2012 Summit of the Americas, it was at a party for Jacobson’s birthday.

The ambassador isn’t the only Trump surrogate to break rhetorical ranks with the president over Mexico. While Trump in April threatened to withdraw from Nafta, trade adviser Peter Navarro talks about making North America a manufacturing "powerhouse," and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross discusses a "sensible" Nafta update. Yet, no one is responsible day in and day out for representing American interests -- whether commercial, security, or cultural -- quite like Jacobson.

In an e-mailed response to questions, Jacobson said "Mexico has for 200 years been and will remain among our most important international relationships. Certainly we face challenges in law enforcement, trade, and migration, but we can meet those challenges working together."

Clouded Future

While Jacobson is the top American official on the ground in Mexico, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and people inside the White House will probably play a bigger roll in calling the shots in the trade talks, said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

"She knows Nafta well and clearly will be an advocate for not having a complete overhaul but trying to upgrade and modernize Nafta," Shifter said. "Whether that’s a position that will prevail in the administration is unclear at this point, but she’ll be at the table making that case."

Jacobson’s own future remains uncertain. She may have gained an ally in the White House with John Kelly, who previously worked with Jacobson as secretary of homeland security and led the U.S. Southern Command, becoming chief of staff. Still, many of the top positions at the State Department are still vacant, and with the focus on getting those jobs filled, Trump has replaced few of the career foreign service professionals who served as ambassadors under Obama. So it’s possible Jacobson will be replaced once more of her superiors are installed.

For now, Jacobson is "the ideal ambassador to be in Mexico,” Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary for the region, said in May.

Given her years of experience, Trump would be hard-pressed to find anyone more prepared for the job, said Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City-based university. Anyone less qualified might be held up again in Senate limbo just as the U.S. is preparing to begin Nafta talks.

"She’s an ambassador who has been very well received in Mexico," Chabat said. "She knows the culture, she knows the language. She’s shown herself to be a good channel for trying to smooth over conflicts that come up between Mexico and the U.S."

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