Donald Trump likes to brag about being tough with world leaders but he may have bungled his first chance to prove it when he met Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto on Wednesday. He may, in fact, have been played by the seasoned politician, who is running low in polls and surprised friends and foes alike by inviting Trump, and Hillary Clinton, to Mexico.
Throwing open a remarks-only press appearance, a self-assured Trump said the wall along the border with Mexico, his pet immigration project, was discussed but not who will pay for it, which has been his campaign’s signature theme.
To allies and supporters, Trump may have seemed deliberately statesmanlike, addressing an issue in stages, and not rushing it, as his advisers and supporters tired of his gaffes had wanted to see so desperately. And the fact that he generally held himself well against a genuinely elected president, which he did remarkably well, even his worst critics seemed impressed.
Critics and opponents, however, accused Trump of “folding under pressure”. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine called it Trump’s “diplomatic amateur hour” and that it “tells me something about his backbone” and demonstrated “kind of a diplomatic lack of resolve”.
And payment for the wall did come up. No sooner had Trump’s jet cleared Mexican airspace, Pena Nieto let it be known through his official spokesman that payment was discussed, and he had pushed back. He followed that up with a tweet, in Spanish: “At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
This was not an innocent cross-border mix up. And Pena Nieto is not a fan of Trump, having compared his anti-Mexico/anti-Hispanic rhetoric to that of Hitler and Mussolini.
And already low in popularity, the president had irritated Mexicans tired of Trump’s insults by inviting him to a meeting.
Some commentators believed Nieto was up to something by inviting Trump and Clinton, perhaps a desperate bid to rescue his own sagging popularity.
And some Mexican-Americans had hoped the diminutive president, as he looked standing next to a towering Trump, had a plan with the goal of sending back Trump a little chastened, a little wounded.
Jorge Ramos, an influential Mexican-American journalist who has had a running battle with Trump, having been thrown out of his news conference once, was disappointed.
In a series of tweets that were widely cited in US media, he called Pena Nieto “weak and shy” for letting Trump leave Mexico without apologising for his insulting remarks.
But he seemed unaware of Pena Nieto’s last tweet.
For his part, Trump stood by, in a major immigration speech to supporters in Arizona, with his promise to make Mexico pay for the wall. “Mexico will pay of the wall, hundred per cent,” he said, adding, “they don’t know it yet but they will pay for it.”
Pena Neito, it is safe to assume, was listening.