A testy phone call between Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his United States counterpart Donald Trump was the catalyst for a joint decision to call off a planned meeting between the pair, according to a report published Saturday in the Washington Post.
The Post said that Trump’s border wall proposal took up a considerable portion of a roughly 50-minute conversation between the two leaders last Tuesday and was — as in the past — a major source of contention.
According to Mexican and U.S. officials who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, Trump refused to agree to publicly affirm Mexico’s repeated assertion that it will not pay for the construction of the wall.
Trump “lost his temper” during the call, one Mexican official said, while U.S. officials instead described the president as frustrated and exasperated because he believed it was unreasonable for Peña Nieto to expect him to walk away from his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.
Both sides agreed, however, that Peña Nieto’s desire to avoid public embarrassment and Trump’s refusal to make that assurance was the crucial factor that led to the cancelation of the bilateral meeting that had been slated to take place in March.
The decision dashes arrangements that were agreed to in Washington earlier this month between a delegation of Mexican officials and a team of Trump advisers, led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The Mexican team, led by Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray, left the White House on February 14 believing it had an agreement that wall funding would not be brought up in a meeting between the two presidents.
According to sources cited by prominent Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, the call not only led to the meeting’s cancelation but has also caused a deterioration in relations between foreign affairs staff in Mexico and their counterparts in Washington.
In an opinion piece published today on the news website Debate, the well-known columnist and news anchor wrote: “I don’t know if they no longer take calls from Videgaray in the White House but what some sources have confided to me is that at other levels of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, bilateral contacts have been broken.”
Loret de Mola described the climate of relations between the two countries as “frozen.”
Prior to the news that Peña Nieto would not travel to Washington, some political analysts in Mexico said meeting Trump would be risky given the U.S. president’s propensity for verbal combat and one-upmanship.
The Mexican president, in contrast, prefers to avoid conflict in face-to-face meetings.
With the presidential election just over four months away, there is a risk that any perception of kowtowing to the U.S. could not only be further damaging to Peña Nieto’s already embattled administration but also to the chances of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate, José Antonio Meade.
A vast majority of Mexicans consider the wall proposal as both offensive and racist and several members of the federal government have been at pains to assert that Mexico will under no circumstances pay for it.
Peña Nieto and Trump previously clashed on the same issue in another phone call that took place just a week after the latter’s inauguration in January 2017. They met on the sidelines at a G20 meeting in Germany in July but neither leader has visited the other in Washington or Mexico City since Trump became president.
A former Mexican ambassador to the United States told the Post that Trump’s unrelenting attitude towards building the wall and making Mexico pay for it has come at a cost to the wider relationship between the two countries.
“The problem is that President Trump has painted himself, President Peña Nieto and the bilateral relationship into a corner,” Arturo Sarukhan said.
“Even from the get-go, the idea of Mexico paying for the wall was never going to fly. His relationship with Mexico isn’t strategically driven. It’s not even business; it’s personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that’s a huge problem. It could end up with the U.S. asking itself, ‘who lost Mexico?’” he explained.
However, despite the wall issue and NAFTA renegotiation talks that have also been highly contentious, Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray said earlier this month that the bilateral relationship between the two neighbors is closer under Trump than it has been previously.
“I think in many ways the relationship is more fluid,” Videgaray remarked while standing alongside U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Mexico City. “It’s closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people, but that’s a fact of life.”
According to U.S officials, Peña Nieto might make another attempt to visit Washington later in the year and there is also a possibility that he will meet with Trump on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas which will be held in Lima, Peru, in April.
But with the political stakes already high and rising further as the July 1 election approaches, there is a possibility that Peña Nieto and Trump will not hold formal face-to-face talks before the former vacates the president’s office in December.