The World

Trump’s Man in Mexico

The likely nominee for ambassador to Mexico shows the extent of the president’s disrespect.

Christopher Landau speaks with another man in a suit.
Christopher Landau (left) speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on Oct. 3, 2014.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The position of U.S. ambassador to Mexico has always been something of a riddle. Despite Mexico’s evident geopolitical, social, and economic relevance for the United States, presidents have generally used the job as a convenient gift for friends of the administration, an experiment of sorts for diplomats in the making or, worse, a launching pad for calamitous conspiracies. During the Mexican Revolution, William Howard Taft’s ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, played a role in the violent plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Francisco I. Madero. The president was eventually murdered by forces Lane Wilson abetted. Of course, not every American ambassador has played such a sinister part in Mexican history, but they haven’t been particularly constructive either. In part, at least, this has to do with the way American governments have chosen their emissaries.

 America has rarely appointed undisputable experts on Mexico to the massive embassy along Paseo de la Reforma, just across the street from the symbolic Angel de la Independencia, in the heart of Mexico City. This, of course, is not entirely uncommon in U.S. foreign policy. Caroline Kennedy, for example, was neither an experienced diplomat nor a Japan specialist when Barack Obama nominated her as head of the American Embassy in Tokyo. But there are examples of more sensible choices, especially in diplomatic posts of urgent relevance or peculiar tension for the United States. Take Russia. In 2012, the Obama administration chose Michael McFaul as its ambassador to Russia. McFaul, who had been studying Russian life since college, had already spent more than three decades obsessively scrutinizing the country and its complicated idiosyncrasies by the time he arrived in Moscow. It would have been difficult to find anyone more qualified to represent the interests of the United States before Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. And yet, even with his remarkable understanding of the country, McFaul’s Russian odyssey met a complicated end, proof of the complexity and importance of an ambassadorship in a country so relevant to America’s interests.

When it came to Mexico—arguably, every bit as significant as Russia for American foreign policy—Obama’s team chose quite a different path. Obama first picked Carlos Pascual, a man with diplomatic experience but no prior knowledge of Mexico’s complex political dynamics, and then named Earl Anthony Wayne, another career diplomat with broad experience in places like Afghanistan but limited specific acquaintance with Mexico. After Wayne’s departure, the Obama administration considered appointing Maria Echaveste to the post. A well-regarded academic and community leader, Echaveste nonetheless had almost no diplomatic experience to speak of and little familiarity with some of the most relevant issues that drove the bilateral agenda.  With just a few months left in office, Obama finally made the right choice: He nominated Roberta Jacobson, his assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. Jacobson, perhaps the most sophisticated and erudite Mexican ambassador of the past half-century, became a beloved figure in Mexico, comfortable both in the highest circles of power and among ordinary Mexicans, with whom she partook often and joyfully.

Jacobson stayed on for the beginning of the Trump administration but left her post in May reportedly distressed by President Donald Trump’s nativist and increasingly anti-Mexican rhetoric. Not coincidentally, Jacobson departed just a few weeks after fellow career diplomat and Latin American expert John Feeley quit his position as American ambassador to Panama over his profound differences with Trump’s policies (Jon Lee Anderson would document Feeley’s decision in an extensive New Yorker profile soon after).

The identity of Jacobson’s replacement as ambassador to Mexico has been the subject of intense speculation. Would Trump turn to a real expert in a country that, perhaps more than any other, has captured the president’s morbid imagination, or would he fall prey to some of the same mistakes made by his predecessors and choose someone ill-suited for a position that requires someone with Jacobson’s or Feeley’s capacity for nuance and empathy? The answer, it turns out, is an extreme version of the latter.

Trump is expected to nominate D.C. attorney Christopher Landau as the next ambassador to Mexico. While an accomplished lawyer, Landau’s credentials for the Mexico assignment are virtually nonexistent. Other than being the son of former American ambassador to Paraguay, Chile, and Venezuela, George Landau, Trump’s potential nominee has no practical foreign policy experience to speak of. He has never held any sort of diplomatic post, nor is he an expert on Mexico, its politics, its culture, or its current troubles. Apparently, Landau’s only qualifications for the Mexico City post are his supposedly fluent knowledge of Spanish and his work on Latin America as an undergraduate student, credentials shared by conceivably hundreds of thousands of Americans.

If confirmed, Landau would be the least experienced American diplomat to occupy the Mexican ambassadorship in a generation, an indefensible decision at a crucial juncture for the two countries. On the other hand, perhaps Landau’s appointment is merely symbolic. After all, when it comes to Mexico, the Trump administration seems to trust only one man: Jared Kushner.

Just a couple of days ago, the president’s son-in-law traveled to Mexico City, where he had dinner with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign minister, at the private residence of television executive Bernardo Gómez. During the meeting, which wasn’t disclosed by López Obrador’s office until the morning after, Kushner and Mexico’s president reportedly reviewed the future of the embattled USMCA trade deal and even discussed potential new American commitment on aid for Central America. With a de facto ambassador and self-styled Secretary of State Jared Kushner at hand, who needs a proper and knowledgeable ambassador?