Donald Trump has spent years trashing Mexico as a corrupt enemy of the United States, whose government has looked the other way as drug dealers and criminals stream across the border. On Wednesday, he’ll step off a plane in Mexico City and confront a government and people that have followed his every utterance — and rejected them.
Trump’s meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is one of the greatest gambles of the election for Trump. It comes as he trails in most polls and prepares to deliver a speech expected to repackage — and perhaps walk back — his controversial immigration policies after a year of calling for mass deportations and a 2,000-mile border wall with Mexico. He’ll return from the trip in the evening and deliver his immigration address in Phoenix.
“If he can go down there and look statesmanlike while at the same time being firm for what he stands for, then I think it helps shape people’s perceptions of him as to what he would be like if he’s actually president,” said Steve Munisteri, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Texas GOP. “This is chance for him to demonstrate to the American people what it would be like to have Trump as president, what it would be like if he was dealing with foreign leaders.”
Republicans see the gambit as a high-risk, high-reward opportunity to change the terms of the election — but only if Trump can demonstrate presidential demeanor on the international stage. To that end, the joint press conference he intends to hold with Peña Nieto afterward offers a potential glimpse into what a Trump bilateral meeting would look like.
“He wants to establish a conversation with a neighboring country, a leader. And also to discuss the common problems and challenges that our country is facing,” said Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, on Wednesday morning.
It could be a hard sell in a country that Trump has long blamed for America’s illegal immigration problems. Over the years Trump – primarily on Twitter – has labeled Mexico an “enemy,” urged an American boycott, threatened to deduct foreign aid and feuded with former Mexican presidents about his plans to build a border wall. After hosting the 2007 Miss Universe Pageant in Mexico, Trump claimed a local businessman owed him money and that the Mexican court system had failed to force him to pay.
“Mexico is not a U.S. friend,” he tweeted last year, just before announcing his presidential bid.
Charlie Spies, a veteran GOP lawyer, sees the move as a simple play for swing-state white voters, rather than an attempt to appeal to minorities.
“Winning the Hispanic vote for Donald Trump is likely a lost cause, but the Caucasian swing voters he needs to be successful in target states will likely see this trip to Mexico as an important outreach effort,” he said. “He is doing a speech today that purports to outline an immigration policy that’s really a no win situation for him because he demagogued the issue for so long … Even if the president embarrasses him, and/or Trump loses his cool, no matter what happens, the visual of him on stage with a world leader elevates him.”
Peña Nieto invited both Trump and Hillary Clinton last week, and the Trump campaign scrambled to pull Wednesday’s meeting together, according to a person briefed by a senior Trump adviser.
“Trump realized this would be a brilliant time to do it and is trying to pull it together last minute,” a person close to the campaign who had been briefed by a campaign staffer said Tuesday night. “Would be a major power play. It’s like he’s already negotiating on behalf of America.”
The person suggested that the meeting could, for example, allow Trump to agree to deport only criminals if the Mexican president offered some sort of concession in return.
Mexican political leaders, including former President Vicente Fox, questioned why Peña Nieto would “legitimize” Trump by hosting him at the presidential palace. It’s raised the prospect of Peña Nieto, himself struggling amid unpopularity, intends to upstage Trump and denounce his anti-Mexico rhetoric.
“The most logical reason he would do this is so he could forcefully denounce Trump and try to reinforce his – elevate his standing among the Mexican voters,” Spies said.” If he doesn’t do that, then I agree with the criticism of people like former President Fox who believe that this is an honor that Donald Trump has not earned.”
After Trump announced the meeting, Peña Nieto confirmed it on Twitter, explaining in Spanish “I believe in dialogue to promote the interests of Mexico in the world.” The meeting is scheduled to take place at the presidential palace in Mexico City, the New York Times reported.
Conway pronounced the meeting a “decisive presidential move,” while taking a shot at Clinton for not also accepting the invitation.
“We’re just happy the president invited him,” Conway told NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday, adding, “I mean, I feel like she keeps following the leader here.”
Corey Lewandowski, who held Conway’s title until being fired amid a June leadership shakeup but still talks with Trump regularly, similarly called the Mexico visit “leadership.”
Lewandowski suggested that his former boss could change the tenor of his relationship with Mexico as a result of the trip.
“Look, it’s very, very possible that Mr. Trump goes down there, meets the president, says, hey, look, we have more things in common than we have apart. Let’s find a way that in 69 days from today when I’m elected president of the United States we can work together,” Lewandowski said.
Arguing that Trump would not back away from his position on the wall, Lewandowski said that proposal was an unbreakable starting point of negotiation.
“We can work together, we can find a way that Mexico can find a way to start paying for that wall, but it is going to be built,” Lewandowski continued. “It’s 2,000 miles. We don’t need to build a wall all 2,000 miles. Maybe it’s 1,100 miles, because the topography of the border. But that wall is going to get built. He’s never deviated from it. And the American people aren’t going to pay for it.”
It is traditional for major party presidential nominees to travel to foreign countries to demonstrate their ability to perform on a world stage, but neither candidate has put together a traditional sojourn abroad this year. In June, Trump traveled to his golf courses in Scotland and Ireland and held press conferences, which were designed largely to promote the properties there, but he did not hold meetings with local leaders or other political events. Late last year, Trump canceled plans to visit Israel amid reports that it would provoke unrest among Palestinians and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was uninterested in meeting with him.
Clinton, who traveled the world more extensively than any prior secretary of state during her tenure in the Obama administration, has not announced plans for any campaign trips abroad.
In a statement, Clinton’s campaign reiterated some of Trump’s previous statements about Mexicans and immigration, including calling some Mexicans “rapists.”
“What ultimately matters is what Donald Trump says to voters in Arizona, not Mexico, and whether he remains committed to the splitting up of families and deportation of millions,” Clinton’s campaign said.
Such trips traditionally are high-stakes affairs that carry both risks and opportunities. In 2008, images of the throngs of Germans who cheered Barack Obama as he spoke at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate helped solidify his image at home as a transcendent figure. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s summer trip to Europe was marred by multiple memorable gaffes, including his criticism of London’s performance as a summer Olympics host.
But just hours before the meeting is set to take place, Trump, who has rarely shied from risk in this campaign, tweeted, “I have accepted the invitation of President Enrique Pena Nieto, of Mexico, and look very much forward to meeting him tomorrow.”
Because Mexico relies heavily on trade with United States and remittances from Mexican citizens living in the U.S., Trump’s vows to deport undocumented immigrants and adopt more protectionist trade policies have shaken the Mexican government.
In March, Peña Nieto compared Trump’s rhetoric to that of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but he has since struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging that he will have to work with Trump if the Republican nominee is elected president.