At various points in the last 14 months, Donald Trump has referred to Mexico as an “enemy” which sends its worst criminals into the United States to rape and murder our women — while Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has likened the GOP nominee to Mussolini and Hitler.
Trump has also threatened to cut Mexican citizens off from billions of dollars sent to them by family members living abroad unless their government agrees to make a billion-dollar investment in a wall along our southern border. He has disparaged the Mexican court system and advised businesses to stop investing in the country.
All of which is to say, Trump did a masterful job managing expectations for his (last-minute) meeting with Peña Nieto in Mexico: On Wednesday afternoon, the Republican nominee appeared beside the Mexican president at a pair of podiums. Neither had any visible signs of injury. Both seemed as if they had emerged from an awkward but amiable conversation.
The Mexican president said their discussion was “open and constructive,” and that they had discovered that they share many goals, including strengthening border security and cracking down on drug cartels. Trump was polite and friendly to our ally’s elected leader. He sounded, more or less, like a sane politician. And all of this seemed, somehow, impressive.
Which isn’t to say Trump made it through the photo op without providing any reminder of his prejudices. By praising “first, second, and third generation Mexicans” in the U.S., the Republican nominee once again revealed that he does not see non-white U.S. citizens as “Americans,” exactly.
Nonetheless, Trump came off as someone who could plausibly make it through a term in the Oval Office without starting a war with our southern neighbor. Which kicks him up several notches on the “presidential” scale.
But while Trump boosted his credibility as a diplomat, he damaged his authority as a “negotiator.” After pledging to “rip up” the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout his campaign, Trump left his one-hour meeting with the Mexican president demanding that NAFTA merely “be improved upon” — the same position that Peña Nieto proposed in his remarks.
And, despite the fact that “Compelling Mexico to Pay for the Wall” is one of the only detailed policy plans on his campaign website, Trump neglected to even broach the subject.
But, at the end of the day, the Mexican president said that he “absolutely respects” America’s democratic process, thus, implicitly agreeing to recognize Trump as the legitimate leader of the United States, should he win in November. Whether this is enough to legitimize Trump in the eyes of his the many undecided voters who dislike him, remains to be seen.