By Joshua Partlow and Philip Rucker
MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday morning canceled his upcoming visit with President Trump amid outrage in Mexico about Trump’s plan to build a border wall and his threats to force Mexico to pay for it.
After Trump signed his executive orders on the border wall and other measures to crack down on illegal immigration, Peña Nieto sent out a recorded message on Wednesday night saying that he “regrets and disapproves” of the U.S. decision to move forward with the wall, but that he still planned to come to Washington next Tuesday to meet with Trump because of the importance of the negotiations.
But that decision changed after a Thursday morning tweet from Trump saying that if Mexico is not willing to pay for the wall, “then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
The growing conflict between the United States and Mexico has quickly deteriorated since Trump took power. Trump has proposed several policies that Mexico opposes, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, increased deportations, and the border wall.
Peña Nieto and other Mexican officials repeatedly condemned the idea of a border wall - one of Trump’s signature promises and a rallying cry for his supporters - during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. Since Trump’s election, Peña Nieto has insisted that Mexico won’t pay for the wall, casting the issue as a matter of dignity and principle for the nation.
The brewing conflict between the United States and Mexico is threatening to fracture the relations between these neighbors and long-standing allies. Pressure has been mounting on Peña Nieto to respond more forcefully to Trump’s provocations.
Trump’s decision to issue executive orders to begin construction of the border wall and crack down on illegal immigration alarmed Mexicans that the campaign rhetoric they heard from Trump for a year is finally coming true. The timing was seen as further insult: Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray was flying to Washington on Tuesday when news broke about Trump’s border wall announcement.
In his Wednesday night address, Peña Nieto said: “I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue the construction of a wall that for years has divided us, not united us. Mexico does not believe in walls.”
For Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings have sunk to near single digits, this message amounted to an angry denunciation of Trump’s plans. Throughout Trump’s rise, Peña Nieto has been mostly respectful toward him, even inviting him to visit Mexico City as a candidate last August. He has stressed that the two countries, which have such extensive economic ties, need to continue to negotiate and work together. For that reason, he suggested Wednesday that his trip to Washington, would continue, despite the fact that many Mexicans are outraged by Trump’s wall. On Thursday, that changed.
Former president Vicente Fox said in an interview that if the Mexican government “weakens, if they make concessions,” and continue with the visit, “they should not come back to Mexico.”
“Because Mexico’s not going to welcome them, either Peña or Videgaray. Mexican honor is at stake,” he said. “Right now Peña Nieto has to regain his leadership in Mexico. What better way than when we have this menace, this threat, coming from the exterior. It’s the time for President Peña to become the patriotic leader of Mexico that we need at this point in time.”
On Thursday morning, Trump also accused Mexico of taking advantage of U.S. companies and consumers via the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump tweeted: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers ... of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
But Mexico’s finance minister, Jose Antonio Meade, said in a Mexican television interview on Thursday that while the United States does have a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico, “that’s not the same thing as saying that trade is bad.”
Meade added that if the meeting got canceled, this could sow uncertainty in the financial markets. The value of Mexico’s currency has fallen since Trump’s election.
“The most difficult thing to manage is uncertainty,” he said.
Top Republican congressional leaders declined Thursday to wade into Trump’s relationship with Peña Nieto.
“I don’t have any advice to give to the president about that issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell said Congress intends to address the issue of the wall but he will leave the president’s interaction with foreign leaders to him.
Asked if there are any concerns about the relationship with Mexico, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., replied, “I think it’ll be fine.”