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Mexico's president tries to explain that disastrous Trump meeting

In a dialog with young Mexicans, the president answered questions about Donald Trump, gay marriage, and revelations that he copied large chunks of his undergraduate thesis.
Photo via Mexico's Presidency

Even before taking office in 2012, Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto was famous for avoiding unscripted interactions with the media or the public. That was supposed to change on Thursday night when he ditched the tradition of long, solemn, and very boring annual state-of-the-nation presidential address in favor of a "dialogue" with 300 young people.

The forum came just a day after the disastrous visit by US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, so it was an opportunity for the president, who's approval rating was close to 20 percent before Trump's visit, to explain himself.


"There were two options," Peña Nieto said in response to a question about Trump's visit. "We could have confronted him and perhaps insulted him like he has insulted [Mexicans] or seek a space for dialogue that can stop him, or at least make him understand Mexico's reality."

While the new format broke the mold, the first question showed how far it remained from shattering the old ways originally set by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party the last time it was in power — from 1929 until 2000.

"Over the four years you have been in office you have made many improvements in our country," said Juan Luis López Alcocer, after his name was pulled from a transparent tombola. "I would like to know, what other good news can you give us about improvements in our country?"

The president didn't flinch under the pressure.

"I will try to be brief, Juan Luis," he said.

Questions got more complex as the event progressed, though there was no follow up, and most of the answers were greeted with applause.

The president's office said the clean cut men and women in suits, ties, and heels were "stand out" millennials from around the country. The office did not respond to more specific questions about the selection criteria.

The president was not asked to directly address corruption allegations involving his family and a government contractor, but he did respond to other potentially awkward topics such as signs his party is burying his initiative on equal marriage rights. He said it was up to the congress.

The night's most direct answer may have been Peña Nieto's response to last month's revelation that he copied large chunks of his 1991 undergraduate law thesis.

"Nobody can tell me I plagiarized it," he said. "Perhaps I didn't cite some of the authors I consulted in the right way, that's probable, and I would have to accept that as a methodological error."

Related: Trump's humiliating visit could doom Mexico's president and his party

Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman