Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said he and President Donald Trump agreed to stop publicly talking about who would pay for a border wall, but the U.S. administration made no mention of such a deal in its version of a joint statement by the two governments.
The difference was notable in the joint statements released after what both sides described as a “productive and constructive” hour-long call meant to ease a widening rift between the two neighbors and trading partners.
The two governments released statements that were mostly the same except for one sentence that appeared in the Spanish-language version from Mexico and not in the one from the U.S.: “The presidents also agreed for now to refrain from speaking publicly about this controversial topic.”
Officials at the White House and Pena Nieto’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about the discrepancy.
The wall has become a delicate subject for both leaders. Trump has had to publicly acknowledge that taxpayer dollars will be used to start construction with the cost, estimated as high as $20 billion, somehow recouped from Mexico later. In that regard, he may view an agreement with Pena Nieto to stop talking about the issue in public as a relief. Pena Nieto has been firm in rejecting the idea that Mexico would pay to erect a wall along almost 2,000 miles of border and has come under increasing domestic political pressure to stand up to Trump.
This may be Pena Nieto’s way of pressuring Trump into refraining from tweets and public statements about paying for the border wall, which are roiling markets in Mexico and damaging the president’s own reputation, says Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.
“Every time Trump mentions the topic he puts Pena Nieto in a bind,” Chabat said. “I think Pena Nieto fears that Trump will say publicly ‘we spoke about it and he told me he will pay,’ and this for Pena Nieto is politically unacceptable.”
The two nations also are embroiled in a dispute over the balance in one of the world’s biggest bilateral trading relationships and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also includes Canada, on U.S. jobs.
Trump said Friday he and Pena Nieto “had a very good talk” and blamed past U.S. leadership for negotiating trade agreements that give other countries an advantage.
Mexico “out-negotiated us and beat us to a pulp” Trump said at a news conference with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House. “We’re going to be working on a fairer relationship.”
Pena Nieto on Thursday canceled a visit to the White House planned for next week after Trump reinforced his demand, via Twitter, that Mexico pay for a barrier along the U.S. southern border to stem illegal immigration. Mexico’s government has refused.
The clash has depressed the Mexican peso, which is down almost 14 percent against the dollar since the U.S. election on concerns that one of the world’s largest bilateral trade relationships was headed for a break. The currency rebounded Friday afternoon, gaining 1.5 percent to 20.8980 per dollar. The two nations’ economies are so deeply intertwined, especially in the border states, that it might be nearly impossible to pull them apart without serious political or economic unrest.
Pena Nieto was scheduled to take part in talks in Washington next week on NAFTA, which Trump has threatened to abandon if he cannot strike a better bargain for U.S. workers. Foreign Relations Minister Luis Videgaray was in Washington Thursday, meeting with Trump administration officials. He told reporters the discussions would continue and that it’s still possible that the two sides can reach “very good agreements.”
Trump and Pena Nieto followed up with their telephone conversation.
“With respect to the payment for the border wall, both presidents acknowledged their clear and very public differences in positions about this sensitive topic, and they agreed to resolve their differences as part of the comprehensive discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship,” the Mexican statement said, adding the word “sensitive” issue rather than merely “this issue” but otherwise tracking the White House statement.
The different interpretations of what was agreed to recalled the first face-to-face meeting between the two men. While a candidate for U.S. president with building a border wall a central element of his campaign, Trump went to Mexico City to meet with Pena Nieto last August.
At the time, Trump said he and Pena Nieto discussed the proposed barrier but that his plan to make Mexico pay for it didn’t come up. Hours later, Pena Nieto disputed that, saying he started out the conversation making clear Mexico’s stance.
Trump was lambasted by his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who said the Republican “failed his first foreign test.” Pena Nieto came under heavy criticism in Mexico for giving Trump a platform.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Nacha Cattan