Donald Trump sounded more cooperative toward working with Mexico after he held a surprise meeting in Mexico City with the country’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, just hours before the Republican nominee is to give a major speech on immigration.
“We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment of the wall,” Trump said in a press conference along with Pena Nieto. He was referring to one of his signature proposals — to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and to get Mexico to pay for it.
But in contrast to the rhetoric he has displayed at rallies, inciting his supporters to shout “Build the Wall!,” Trump was markedly subdued, calling Pena Nieto “my friend” and talking up the shared interests of the United States and Mexico.
Pena Nieto, too, stressed cooperation between the two countries. He said that he told Trump in their meeting that “the Mexican people were offended by certain comments” that Trump had made, but the Mexican president refrained from criticizing him as he has before.
In fact, he said that “our border must be viewed as a joint opportunity. Both countries must invest more in it.”
The trip was finalized on Tuesday night, surprising reporters and others closely watching the presidential race, but in line with the kind of political theater that has characterized Trump’s campaign.
The trip seemed designed to show that Trump was fit to meet and negotiate on the international stage, and in his remarks he said that he and the Mexican president “had a constructive exchange of ideas over quite a period of time.” Hillary Clinton, in speeches and ads, has characterized him as temperamentally unfit for the presidency.
Trump is scheduled to deliver a speech on immigration on Wednesday evening in Phoenix.
“I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican Americans, not only in terms of friendships but the tremendous numbers I employ,” Trump said.
Pena Nieto had been particularly critical of Trump over his campaign rhetoric, comparing him to Mussolini and Hitler. He also has said that there would be “no scenario” in which Mexico would pay for Trump’s plan to build a border wall.
Trump said that in their meeting, he expressed his view that Mexico has benefited gar more greatly from the North American Free Trade Agreement than the United States. Pena Nieto said that the agreement has been beneficial to both countries, but said that it also “can be improved.”
Clinton criticized his visit in a speech she gave earlier in the day.
“We don’t build a coalition by insulting our friends and acting like a loose cannon,” she said, adding that dropping in on the U.S. neighbor “for a few hours” is “not how it works.” Her campaign has been sending out reminders of Trump’s past tweets that have been particularly harsh toward Mexican immigrants, and have challenged the notion that a “softening” of that rhetoric can mitigate that.
Rob Reiner, who frequently takes to Twitter to bash Trump, wrote, “Clearly we’re not sending our best to Mexico. We’re sending liars. We’re sending narcissists. We’re sending sociopaths.”
Clearly we're not sending our best to Mexico. We're sending liars. We're sending narcissists. We're sending sociopaths.
— Rob Reiner (@robreiner) August 31, 2016
Mike Murphy, the Republican political strategist, tweeted, “You have to be a really dumb cable TV pundit to think this sill Trump trip to Mexico will make one iota of difference on election day.”
Former Mexican president Vicente Fox characterized Trump’s trip as a way for the Republican nominee to boost sagging poll numbers. “He cynically continues to disregard his own people and disregard Mexicans,” Fox told CNN.
Update: Pena Nieto tweeted after their meeting that the issue of who pays for the wall did come up in the conversation, because he brought it up.
“Al inicio de la conversación con Donald Trump dejé claro que México no pagará por el muro,” he wrote. It translates to, “At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser, said in a statement, “Today was the first part of the discussion and a relationship builder between Mr. Trump and President Peña Nieto. 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.”