Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
After world leaders bailed on visiting the US this summer, one world leader drew the short straw and doesn’t seem to mind it.
Donald Trump is finally going to spend quality time with a peer. His Wednesday summit with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has been touted as a celebration of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (aka NAFTA 2), which a White House statement describes as “the largest, fairest, and most balanced trade agreement ever negotiated.”
Canada’s Justin Trudeau, the third party in the trilateral agreement, won’t be there. Amid concerns about new US tariffs on Canadian aluminum exports and surging coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Trudeau’s office announced Monday that he wouldn’t be traveling to Washington after all.
López Obrador, the leader of a country Trump has maligned for years, is still showing up. He even flew on commercial planes to make the summit. But don’t be fooled by smiles and waves - Donald Trump has done enormous damage to the US relationship with Mexico. AMLO may be making a desperate and naive attempt to appease Trump and get some positive headlines, but he’s betting on the wrong horse here in so many ways.
With the Mexican president in tow, it’s clear that Trump’s trying to distract from the fact that he’s cloaked in horrifying news – whether it’s the pandemic, the economy, or the racism that now pervades his almost every move. For Trump, everything’s a campaign opportunity, especially when cameras are rolling. That’s why we can expect him to use this meeting to do what he does best: lie about the reality of his actions and misrepresent the positive impact of the deals he signs.
The truth is, beating up on Mexico has been one of his greatest hits. While he may momentarily hit pause on his xenophobic diatribes and may, briefly, stop using immigrants from Mexico as bogeyman to satiate his base – no one, including AMLO, should think it will last. Trump’s game with this summit is so obvious it hurts: cast the implementation of the USMCA as an economic tailwind amid a brutal economic downturn and use AMLO as a sign that he isn’t actually xenophobic or anti-Hispanic.
Well, Mr. President, we Americans aren’t that easy. We see you, and your record. Your actions speak louder than any words you may utter from the Oval Office at your summit.
It’s exactly because of Trump’s inaccurate, insulting, and frankly abhorrent comments about Mexicans – not to mention his actions toward Mexico and immigrants and asylum seekers there – that AMLO has been under pressure from his critics to cancel his Washington visit, his first foreign trip since he took office in 2018. But he’s still willing to take the political risk of making the trip likely out of a determination that he needs to propagate some good trade news and safeguard the $600 billion commercial relationship. He clearly isn’t a student of recent history. Trump is already threatening more tariffs on Canada, despite the fact that Canada signed the same trade agreement, for example.
What’s more, Trump is not a popular figure in Mexico. His approval rating in the country was about 8% in January, which doesn’t come as a shock based on his longstanding, inaccurate comments linking Mexican immigrants to crime, his demand that Mexico pay for his border wall and his threats to close the border well before Covid-19-related restrictions. Trump has used Mexico as a scapegoat for a lot of bees in his bonnet, from the economy to immigration and more.
AMLO’s insistence on coming to the White House feels desperate. Traveling on a commercial flight in the midst of a pandemic to visit with the man who consistently bullies your country and insults your people doesn’t scream self-confidence.
But this may be a case of birds of a feather flocking together.
Like Trump, AMLO is not a fan of face masks and initially downplayed the threat of Covid-19, is opposed to government bailouts and relies more on his own “data” than informed expert opinions when it comes to the economy. Like the United States, Mexico is reeling from Covid-19 and facing a severe economic downturn – the country was in recession even before the pandemic. AMLO’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since he took office, over concerns about the economy, coronavirus and public safety concerns.
So while AMLO and Trump are polar opposites in a lot of ways – AMLO is a populist leftist who decries luxury (he stopped using the Presidential plane because it was too opulent) – they both have a need to declare a win, namely the USMCA, and to spin (tall) tales about the economic recovery.
But while they try to direct attention toward the trade deal, smiles and signing ceremonies won’t hide some bitter realities – particularly when it comes to bilateral issues like immigration.
Trump typically uses any moment in the spotlight to insult immigrants. He might dial back his xenophobia and racism with AMLO by his side, but that won’t rewrite history. Meanwhile, AMLO’s presence in DC will undoubtedly be seen by many – both in Mexico and in the US – as open support for Trump’s reelection bid. AMLO is putting all of his eggs in a very anti-Mexican basket.
AMLO criticized Trump before being elected President but has kept quiet since being sworn in – a potentially politically costly move back home. Unless AMLO speaks up, he will appear to have acquiesced to Trump’s reign as King of the North and positioned himself as a key foreign policy surrogate for Trump’s 2020 campaign.
But AMLO seems willing to take that risk, likely because he’s banking on a Trump win and perceived benefits if he’s seen as a member of the Trump team. That’s a risky bet. Trump’s track record suggests that he would use a second term to double down on policies that hurt Mexico, not help it.
Trump has used the pandemic as an excuse to inflict more harm on immigrants at our southern border – including effectively shutting down the US asylum system at the border and implementing an expulsion order that sends migrants – regardless of their age – back to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes. Homeland Security officials have bypassed court-ordered due process protections for minors, asylum seekers and others as they return border-crossers to Mexico as quickly as possible.
These measures have been extended indefinitely and feel like a blueprint for what Trump has wanted to do all along, regardless of the humanitarian impact. AMLO will look on board with these measures – not to mention with Trump’s overall assault on human rights and immigration – if he stands silent next to Trump amid these developments.
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We know what Trump wants from this visit: a public showing next to a supportive Hispanic face and probably some additional concessions on immigration. (Last year, after tariff threats from Trump, AMLO agreed to deploy the Mexican national guard to the border with Guatemala to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants.)
But no show of friendliness can disguise the reality. While AMLO is undoubtedly focused on getting some kind of short-term bump from a supposed economic victory, the longer-term costs that Trump has inflicted on the US-Mexico relationship will linger even if Trump loses in November.
This article has been updated to add the full surname of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico.