The visit to Washington on Wednesday of Mexican President Manuel Andres López Obrador is something of a head-scratcher.
Why is a proud, pro-left Mexican nationalist using his first trip abroad in 19 months as president to confer with President Trump, whose right-wing rhetoric often attacks Mexicans and whose policies are stubbornly anti-immigration?
Trump and López Obrador come into the controversial meeting with diverging political goals. López Obrador has the most to lose; Trump, falling in opinion polls just four months before the U.S. presidential election, has little to lose.
The official reason for the White House meeting and working dinner is to celebrate the trade treaty reached by the United States, Mexico and Canada that took effect July 1.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, would support American jobs and the country’s competitive edge.
In fact, the USMCA is an update of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the three countries. It adds labor and environmental protections, but experts predict it will have limited short-term impact on growth.
López Obrador had hoped that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would also be at the White House this week as a form of political cover to what is an enormously controversial trip both here and in Mexico. But Trudeau declined, citing a busy schedule and the inappropriateness of international travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage in the United States.
Like Trump, López Obrador has been scornful of the science behind the deadly disease and downplayed the risks. The Mexican president says he has never been tested for COVID-19 because he has no symptoms, and will take a test only if the White House requires it.
“For both presidents, this serves as a distraction from the crisis in their countries, which is COVID-19,” said Fernando Cutz, a former member of Trump’s National Security Council in charge of Latin America and now at the Wilson Center think tank and Cohen Group consulting firm.
“They’d be very happy to be able to shift the conversation to anything else as quickly as possible. Neither has been perceived as doing a particularly good job” in fighting the pandemic and its economic consequences, Cutz said.
For Trump, the visit is a chance to mark a rare, concrete achievement — the trade agreement — while also showing he can still host the Mexican president despite his administration’s hard-line approach toward the southern neighbor. López Obrador’s strategy appears aimed at flattering Trump and minimizing the potential damage an American president can do.
“The two are in a symbiotic relationship,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at the London-based Chatham House.
López Obrador has cooperated with Trump’s immigration policies by agreeing to keep migrants and potential asylum seekers in Mexico to prevent them from reaching the U.S. He has tempered some of Trump’s other tough ideas, deflecting threatened tariffs on Mexican products destined for U.S. markets and a possible restriction on Mexican exports of petroleum.
In addition to the White House appearances, López Obrador plans to lay wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial and at a statue of Benito Juarez, the 19th century Mexican hero who fought for independence from the French and became the country’s first indigenous president. The White House dinner will include some of Mexico’s leading billionaire businessmen, among them telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men. No meetings with Mexican American or immigrant groups, or U.S. lawmakers are scheduled.
López Obrador is ignoring strong opposition to his visit from both U.S. Democrats and many Mexicans. A dozen Latino members of Congress wrote Trump urging the meeting be canceled and calling it a political stunt.
According to Axios, Trump returned the letter with a note scrawled on the top, apparently with a black Sharpie, ignoring the plea and calling the Mexican president “my friend and a wonderful man.”
“I look forward to meeting with the president,” Trump wrote. “Will be good (+important) for both Mexico + the USA.”
López Obrador also praised his relationship with Trump, whom he had never met.
“Our adversaries say, ‘How can I go if Mexicans have been insulted?’” López Obrador told reporters before departing Mexico City. “I can say to the people of my country that since we have been in office, there has been a relationship of respect, not only toward the government, but especially toward the people of Mexico.”
Even as López Obrador spoke, however, Trump was tweeting photographs of a portion of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — much hated in Mexico — which he has vowed to expand.
And Trump is reportedly considering attempting again this week to kill the so-called Dreamers program, which protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who, as children, were brought to the U.S. illegally by relatives.
The Supreme Court struck down Trump’s first attempt to rescind the Obama-era program, whose beneficiaries are largely Mexican-born, though most scarcely recall the country.
“Nice [welcome] gift for Mexico’s president,” tweeted Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to Washington who now runs a consulting firm in Washington for multinational corporations.
Sabatini, of Chatham House, said Trump may feel he needs to balance rolling out the red carpet for a Mexican president with tossing out red meat to his political base.
As different as the frugal López Obrador, 66, and the ostentatious Trump, 74, are in background and politics, both have many traits in common, including a demagogic style and an unshakable core of supporters who will remain unfazed regardless of what the two men do.
“Trump can tout one of his few foreign policy achievements and claim that by renegotiating NAFTA, the U.S. ended up with a better deal,” said Michael Shifter, an expert on Latin America and president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “He can also appear with a Mexican president, whose people and migrants Trump has relentlessly insulted but who has nonetheless been notably accommodating to the U.S. president on a range of issues.”
López Obrador seems determined “to keep Trump happy and keep the U.S. at bay,” Shifter added.
Some analysts worried that López Obrador’s fawning regard for Trump so close to a U.S. presidential election could undermine the bilateral U.S.-Mexico relationship, especially if former Vice President Joe Biden wins in November.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when Trump repeatedly used Mexico as a punching bag, he traveled to Mexico City to meet with then-President Enrique Peña Nieto in an encounter widely seen as politically damaging to the Mexican leader.
Taking place at a time when few Democrats are in town — Congress is in recess — López Obrador’s visit could be seen as a highly partisan gesture, said Juan Gonzalez, a former senior advisor to Biden. But Gonzalez added that the bilateral relationship is too important and is unlikely to suffer long-term damage, especially in a Democratic-led administration.
Some economists saw more positive potential in the López Obrador visit, especially if it focuses on trade and how Mexico can replace China in supply chains.
Plus, it could allow López Obrador to reassure international investors jittery about his reputation as a leftist, said Juan Carlos Baker, a former deputy commerce secretary in the Mexican government, during in a Tuesday teleconference organized by the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.
“The reality is that regardless of the political context in both countries, the U.S. and Mexico cannot give themselves the luxury of not speaking to each other,” he said. “The axis of the visit must center around economic issues and the possibility for recovery.”