Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the past. But following a hastily arranged meeting between the two men on Wednesday afternoon in Mexico City, Peña Nieto was amenable to even the Republican nominee's most controversial policy proposals, which include plans to build a massive border wall and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
On a stage with two podiums and the Mexican flag inside the presidential palace, Peña Nieto stood next to Trump and told reporters that that there had been "misinterpretations" by Mexicans about Trump. He said they had felt "attacked," perhaps a reference to the speech where Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals and rapists across the border. Peña Nieto continued, saying he "believed in [Trump's] sincere intention to build a relationship that will bring improvements for our societies."
Peña Nieto's deference to Trump, who Mexicans have burned in effigy and pummeled in the form of piñatas, drew instant rebuke from past Mexican presidents. His predecessor Felipe Calderón said Peña Nieto committed a "historic mistake," and said that he should have demanded an apology from Trump for his past remarks. Instead, Peña Nieto made an extraordinary effort to find common ground with the Republican nominee.
On the subject of Trump's proposed border wall, Peña Nieto said every country has a "natural right" to protect their own borders, and that both Mexico and the US face a "shared challenge" in the form of Central American migrants crossing through Mexico to reach the US. Trump went on to say that he and Peña Nieto "recognize and respect" the right of either country to build a "physical barrier," but he said the subject of who would pay for such a wall was not discussed.
Peña Nieto also agreed that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), should be updated and renegotiated, one of Trump's central campaign promises. While making no policy concessions, Trump called the Mexican president's surprise invitation to meet a "great honor." Peña Nieto has extended a similar invitation to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
As Trump's poll numbers have dipped over the last several weeks, his campaign has made an effort to present a softer, more diplomatic version of the candidate. He has been reading carefully from teleprompters at rallies, and he recently made a rare expression of regret for any of his comments that offended people. But most notably, his campaign has said he's reconsidering his controversial plan to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the US. He's expected to elaborate on that plan during a speech Wednesday night in Arizona.
It was unclear if the meeting with Peña Nieto — Trump's first with a foreign leader during this campaign — would harm or help this recent effort. Many Mexicans expected their president to try and bolster his own sagging poll numbers by publicly upbraiding Trump. Instead, Peña Nieto called their conversation "open and constructive." He said that while they might "disagree on issues," he believed the candidate's presence in Mexico showed they could agree that the bilateral relationship was "very important" to them both.
As they left the stage, Trump patted Peña Nieto on the back as if they were old friends.
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