To paraphrase Donald Trump, what the hell does he have to lose?
His last-minute decision to visit Mexico – the U.S. neighbor and key trade ally that he’s spent a year disparaging – left political jaws agape. But Trump’s turn onstage with President Enrique Peña Nieto could bear benefits for a candidate whose presidential primary steamroller has sputtered in the general election campaign.
The side trip to Mexico City in advance of a speech on immigration in Phoenix later Wednesday gave the businessman an opportunity to bolster his image as a deal maker – and, more importantly, as a potential president.
“He gets to portray himself as someone who is open to talking to people who are, as he sees it, creating a problem for America,” said Peter Schechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, who has served as a political consultant in Latin America. “He shows he’s solution-oriented, not just a screamer. That he’s going to negotiate, to sit around the table.”
The appearance is unlikely to sway Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly reject Trump. But it helps him head off criticism, Schechter said.
The decision to accept the invitation from Peña Nieto guaranteed Trump blanket news coverage – a key factor in his ability to mow down a presidential primary field of more than a dozen competitors.
“It’s what has propelled his campaign: He figured out a way to dominate media cycles and generate wall-to-wall coverage,” said Scott Jennings, a political veteran who ran Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 Ohio campaign.
More crucially for Trump, the visit – and handshake with Peña Nieto – offered him a chance to address one of his biggest challenges: letting voters see him in a setting similar to a presidential meeting.
Addressing the media after an hourlong meeting both men described as cordial and constructive, Trump stuck to prepared remarks and said the meeting was the start of a dialogue between leaders with differences who wanted the best for their countries. He fuzzed over his more strident calls to cut off remittances to Mexican families if Mexico doesn’t pay for building a wall at the U.S. border.
We are united by our support for democracy, a great love for our people and the contributions of millions of Mexican-Americans to the United States.
Donald Trump in Mexico City
Details were beside the point, Jennings said.
“He got the picture with him onstage with a foreign leader,” Jennings said. “This trip is not about policy as much as it is for regular people to visualize Donald Trump as head of state, and that was accomplished.”
Trump made it plain at a speech Wednesday in Phoenix that he has no intention of moderating his tough immigration talk. Indeed, he broadened his approach, pledging to triple the number of immigration deportation officers and create a new “special deportation task force.” Anyone who has entered the country illegally, he said “will be subject to deportation.”
Trump said Wednesday that he and Pena Nieto discussed his call for a wall at the border, but didn’t talk about his insistence that Mexico pay for it. Pena Nieto, however, contradicted Trump after the meeting, tweeting that he had made it clear to Trump that Mexico won’t pay for the border wall.
Foreign trips carry considerable risks: Romney was dogged by several unfortunate gaffes during an overseas trip in 2012. Republican Govs. Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker all made missteps on trips abroad in 2015.
There’s also the risk that the hastily organized, last-minute trip could be viewed as an ill-conceived effort to distract attention from his campaign’s travails.
And unlike other presidential candidates’ foreign trips, which have included news coverage, Trump’s campaign drew immediate criticism from media groups for leaving behind his traveling press pool – which started covering him only this week.
One way or the other we are going to find a way for Mexico to pay for the wall.
Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence
If Trump’s decision to accept the invite came as a surprise to American observers, there was absolute befuddlement in Mexico as to why Peña Nieto had made the offer in the first place.
Peña Nieto’s popularity is sinking dramatically at home. A poll by the Reforma newspaper in August found that only 23 percent of Mexicans supported him.
That’s the lowest for any Mexican president in modern times at this point in his six-year term. Peña Nieto has been beaten down by scandals involving his wife’s property, ties by close associates to offshore accounts revealed in the Panama Papers and his delay in investigating the kidnapping and presumed mass murder of 43 poor students in the state of Guerrero. Most recently, a news report that analyzed Peña Nieto’s 1991 undergraduate thesis found that 29 percent of it had been plagiarized.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has bitterly criticized Trump, engaged in a Twitter feud with him Wednesday and said the New York businessman was not welcome in the country.
“By 130 million people, we don’t like him,” he said of Trump to CNN. “We reject his message.”
Fox said Peña Nieto had made a mistake by inviting Trump, decrying it as a “desperate” move by an unpopular president. If Peña Nieto tries to shore up his sagging poll numbers with the visit, Fox suggested, he runs the risk of being seen as soft on Trump and of being a traitor.
In Washington, Christopher Wilson, the deputy director at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said he thought Peña Nieto hadn’t expected Trump to take him up on his offer – which was also extended to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I doubt Mexico expected Trump to take them up on the offer, but it’s a signal that Mexico wishes to have positive relations with whoever wins the election,” he said.
Peña Nieto has been among Trump’s harshest critics. In March, he compared Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, saying the candidate’s “strident” rhetoric echoed the language those leaders had used to gain power.
Peña Nieto also has rejected Trump’s signature wall on the border, telling CNN there was “no way” Mexico could pay for it.
Campaigning in Cincinnati, Clinton dismissed the trip, saying it “takes more than making up for a year of insults by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and flying home again.”
At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby said the only U.S. government involvement in Trump’s visit was related to security, with the Secret Service making arrangements for protection. The Trump campaign made no request for support or a pre-visit briefing, and there were no plans for U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson or other embassy personnel to participate in Trump’s meetings.
Kirby brushed off the idea that Trump’s visit could worsen U.S.-Mexican ties, which he described as “very strong and very healthy.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly described the victims of the kidnapping and presumed mass murder in Mexico’s Guerrero state. They were students.
Hannah Allam, Kevin G. Hall and Tim Johnson contributed to this report.