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Worst Friends

Why does Mexico’s president keep doing favors for Trump?

Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump sit beside each other in white armchairs.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

After Monday’s phone call between Donald Trump and outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which the two announced a new, bilateral trade agreement that could replace NAFTA, it is now clear that the Mexican government has become the gift that keeps on giving for Trump.

Just two years ago, in August 2016, when the then-candidate’s campaign was in the doldrums, Peña Nieto invited Trump to visit Mexico City. Around the second week in August, most forecast models gave Hillary Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning the election. It was in that context that, for some unfathomable reason, Peña Nieto decided to hand Trump a political victory that helped him revive his bid for the presidency, despite that fact that Trump had turned Mexico—and Mexicans on both sides of the border—into his go-to villain from the very beginning of his campaign.

Not only did Peña Nieto invite Trump to Mexico’s capital: He treated him as if he were already a head of state. The meeting between the two men was held in the presidential residence, with a joint statement and an impromptu press conference to top things off. Trump took full advantage of his gullible host and the opportunity to appear presidential. Ever the performer, he took to the podium and spoke with authority, reading a carefully prepared statement, grabbing the lectern tightly. When a reporter inquired about his proposed border wall, a contentious issue during the campaign, Trump said he had discussed the project with Peña Nieto but had not gone into details as to which country would pay for its construction. Mexico’s president looked on, perplexed, incapable of even the slightest retort. The men then shook hands, and Trump flew back north. A few hours later, dressed exactly as he had been in Mexico, Trump spoke warmly about his visit with Peña Nieto—“a man I like and respect very much”—and then proceeded to give one of his most aggressive anti-immigration speeches of the whole campaign. Of course, Trump said, Mexico would pay for the wall.

Peña Nieto tried to set the record straight on Twitter, but it was too late. Trump had won. Since then, Peña Nieto’s weakness has cost him dearly. After the meeting, his own approval rating took a 5 point dip from which it never recovered. Time and time again he tried to contain Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric, even canceling a trip to the White House over Trump’s stubborn insistence that Mexico would end up footing the wall’s bill. To no avail: As is his wont, Trump used Mexico, and its government, as a convenient punching bag.

Until he needed a little help from his friends, that is.

Two years later almost to the day after Trump’s visit to Mexico, Peña Nieto has clearly not learned his lesson.

With Donald Trump again in trouble heading into an election, the Mexican president has come to the rescue, once more granting Trump a completely gratuitous political victory that the American president can tout as an accomplishment to improve his party’s chances in November. This time, the topic at hand was not immigration but the long, grueling renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But if the issue was different, the humiliating circumstances were eerily similar.

For the past couple of months, especially after Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, which Peña Nieto’s party lost, negotiations over the massive trade agreement have switched gears, with the Trump administration increasingly interested in reaching a deal. Canada has stood its ground on automobiles and other crucial issues. In sore need of a grand gesture that could both force Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hand and give the U.S. president something to cheer about on trade with barely two months to go until the midterms, Trump went searching for another round of political theater.

At the same time, the Mexican delegation, which recently took on a representative appointed by Mexico’s next president, has become the more willing partner. Whether this is because Peña Nieto doesn’t want any loose ends on his record or doesn’t trust his successor to finish the job is unclear. But whatever the reason, it’s an unexpected parting gift to a U.S. counterpart who has given him little in return.

On Monday morning, Trump sat in the Oval Office to announce the end of NAFTA and the beginning of a new, bilateral deal with Mexico that the president called the “United States–Mexico Trade Agreement,” excluding Canada. Operators then patched through Peña Nieto, from Mexico City. On speakerphone and through an interpreter, the Mexican president congratulated Trump and thanked him profusely. “I am very grateful, Mr. President,” he said.
“I want you to know that I truly appreciate your government and your political will in particular.” Pleased, Trump nodded along. “You’ve been my friend,” Trump said. “It’s been a long time since I traveled to Mexico, where we got to know each other quite well. We actually had a good meeting. Some people weren’t sure if it was a good meeting, but I was”. Peña Nieto jumped right in: “We should toast with tequila to celebrate our understanding.” (No one, apparently, informed him that Trump is a teetotaler or, for that matter, that his prospective drinking buddy has enacted policies that have sunk millions of Mexicans into despair.)

Despite its pomposity, though, the announcement itself was an informal proclamation of an incomplete deal. Among other things, the bilateral compromise appears to call for higher labor standards and increases the requirements of origin for automobiles produced in North America, but these breakthroughs make the most sense with Canada as a partner, not without it. Like that meeting in Mexico, Monday’s phone call itself was completely unnecessary, a Trumpian mise-en-scène of which the Mexican government was, once again, an eager partaker. “This is the latest—and perhaps the last—example of President Peña going to extreme to placate President Trump and his photo-op obsession,” Dan Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me in an email. Others point to the fact that the supposed bilateral agreement that merited such a lovefest between Peña Nieto and Trump on Monday faces long odds of passing Congress. Former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhán mourned the possible demise of the North American economic powerhouse made possible by NAFTA. Some voices also expressed concern and disbelief over Mexico’s apparent complicity in Trump’s strong-arm tactics to bring Canada back to the table.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael Camuñez told me he “was surprised and disappointed to see Mexico take part in the Oval Office press conference, especially after making strong statements previously that they would not participate out of deference to Canada.” The fact that Peña Nieto joined the conference on speakerphone, under the current circumstances, also stunned Camuñez. “It gave the impression that, once again, he had been played by Trump, much like Trump played him, as a candidate, upon hijacking his invitation to visit Mexico only to snub the president hours later in Arizona,” he said.

Before both presidents hung up Monday morning, Enrique Peña Nieto again congratulated Trump. “This is all for the best of two friendly countries,” he said. “I send you an affectionate hug,” Peña Nieto concluded. “A hug from you would be very nice,” Trump replied.

Indeed, it has been.