WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has made his share of attacks on Mexico over the years, but on Wednesday he couldn’t have been nicer to visiting President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
After a series of meetings at the White House, Trump praised his Mexican counterpart over a new trade deal that also involves Canada, and lauded López Obrador, known as AMLO, for his efforts to stop drug trafficking and illegal border crossings.
“It’s all very positive,” Trump said before he and López Obrador signed a joint declaration pledging to build “a shared future of prosperity, security, and harmony.”
López Obrador, who has also been a frequent critic of Trump over his anti-Mexico rhetoric, returned the favor during his White House visit, thanking his host for “the help you have given us” on issues ranging from trade to battling COVID-19.
The Mexican leader who once accused Trump of adopting near-Nazi-like rhetoric toward his country thanked the U.S. president for his “kindness and respect.”
A more upbeat Trump hosted the tightly scripted, one-day summit while fighting off a host of other problems that have shadowed his presidency: criticism of his handling of surging COVID-19 cases, nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, and a steady stream of election polls showing the president slipping further behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump, who put his attacks on Mexico on the back burner while dealing with these other issues, seized the chance to cast himself as a world leader who negotiated a new trade deal and tougher border security.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, one of Trump’s signature initiatives, was the product of months of negotiations and replaces the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which essentially eliminated tariffs on most goods traded among the three countries.
López Obrador, who softened his rhetoric toward Trump after taking office in late 2018, took heat back home for traveling to the White House, especially after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau skipped what was supposed to have been a three-person summit.
Trudeau and his aides cited worries about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as concerns about what the prime minister called “the proposed issue of tariffs on aluminum and steel that the Americans have floated recently.”
Before signing the joint declaration in the Rose Garden, Trump told reporters Canadian officials would travel to the White House to mark the new deal at a later date.
“We’ll have a separate day with Canada, they’ll be coming down at the appropriate time,” he said.
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Neither leader was seen wearing a mask during their White House event. People who came in contact with the leaders were given COVID tests first.
Trump thanked López Obrador for making the United States the destination of his first foreign trip since his election in 2018, and lauded him for new approaches to trade and immigration.
The two leaders also discussed efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken a heavy toll on both countries. Mexico ranks ninth in the world in number of coronavirus cases, and fifth highest in deaths.
The United States leads the world if both categories and is seeing a spike of new cases in states trying to re-open their economies. The total number of cases passed the 3 million mark on Wednesday.
In praising López Obrador for his role in the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, as well as programs designed to crack down on illegal border crossings, Trump said the two countries now have a “very outstanding relationship,” even though at one time “people were betting against that.”
And for good reason: Trump built much of his presidential campaign on the issues of undocumented immigration and Mexico, and did so from the very start.
In his very first campaign speech, his announcement in June 2015, the New York City realtor accused Mexico of “sending” drug dealers and “rapists” over the border.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said five years ago. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
During the campaign and after he took office, Trump claimed Mexico would pay for a new border wall he had promised during the campaign. The administration has put up small sections of fencing, and Mexico has paid for none of it.
After a day of meetings and the signing a declaration of cooperation, Trump hosted a dinner for López Obrador and around 20 Mexican and American businessmen and women, including Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim.
The leaders echoed their mutual praise in formal statements before a “working dinner”at the White House. Trump called it an “exceptional visit,” referring to his counterpart as a “great friend” and a “great president,” while López Obrador said “this is the beginning of a new stage” in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
“The forecasts failed,” López Obrador said, “we are not fighting, we are friends. And we shall continue to be friends.”
López Obrador, a fiery populist known for his fierce attacks on opponents, made Trump a frequent target when he was seeking the Mexican presidency.
In 2017, he put out a short book called “Oye, Trump” – Spanish for “Listen Up, Trump” – in which he compared the president’s rhetorical attacks on Mexicans to Nazi comments about Jews. He has described the American president as “erratic and arrogant.”
“Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination,” he wrote.
Since becoming president, however, López Obrador has been more deferential. He has deployed his country’s National Guard to the border to try and block illegal crossings. He acceded to U.S. demands that asylum seekers remain in Mexico while awaiting court hearings in the U.S.
In his remarks before signing a joint declaration of cooperation, López Obrador said he appreciated that Trump had “never sought to impose anything on us violating our sovereignty.”