The beleaguered Mexican president, battered by one scandal after another, hopes that the meeting might boost his approval ratings. But will it backfire?
Outside of their respective hairstyles, questionable real estate dealings and plagiarism scandals, President Enrique Pea Nieto and Donald Trump dont seem to have much in common. So why then would Pea Nieto seemingly out of the blue invite Trump to Los Pinos? At first glance, the timing of it might seem strange. Except its not at all.
Trump memorably launched his campaign in 2015 by comparing Mexicans to rapists and criminals. He later promised to erect a border wall (which Pea Nieto has publicly refused to build) while also pledging to deport 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Pea Nieto, on the other hand, has gone so far as to liken Trump to Hitler and Mussolini for that kind of rhetoric.
And yet, those spats arent getting in the way of a meeting. Its reported that neither the US embassy in Mexico nor the Mexican government were given advance warning about the visit. And though Pea Nieto did extend invitations to both Hillary Clinton and Trump to meet with him in Mexico City, its easy to see that both Pea Nieto and Trump have something to gain from this particularly timely visit.
Trump stands to bolster his ever-loosening grip on his campaigns trademark issue, immigration, ahead of his big speech in Arizona on Wednesday. Pea Nieto, meanwhile, stands to salvage his waning poll numbers now hovering around 23% according to one recent survey by looking like he is standing up to Trump. The visit is also a timely distraction from embarrassing reports, which have dominated recent headlines, that he plagiarized his law degree thesis.
This weeks bad press, which includes the sacking of Mexicos police commissioner following allegations of cartel executions, follows months of looming scandals plaguing his own administration. These include large teacher strikes, allegations of the use of torture on ordinary citizens and most recently reports that the Mexican first ladys home is owned by a potential government contractor. All of the above have sent Mexican confidence in its president plunging.
The embarrassing thing is that we can actually see Pea Nietos logic at work in real time as this disaster unfolds. The president thinks that he will see the bad man, appear stern to the bad man, tell everyone that he was indeed stern to the bad man and then his poll numbers will rise. Easy. Theres only one problem with this plan. Trump may well hijack that narrative, frame the meeting to his advantage and then straight-up lie about the details in Arizona with a straight face.
Pea Nieto, with his credibility already weakened internationally, would be easy prey. His name is almost synonymous with the brand of poor Mexican governance that Trump rails against in his anti-immigrant tirades all over the country. And even if Pea Nieto does a good job in standing tall to Trumps xenophobic, anti-Nafta, pro-wall rhetoric, the president risks everything should the Republican candidate choose to exploit his numerous political weaknesses. That would not just be damaging to him, but to Mexicos international reputation at large.
Thats why many fear this gamble can only go well for Trump. And if this meeting teaches us anything its that Pea Nieto is willing to risk Mexican ire and possible geopolitical consequences if only to save his own political career.