During their much-awaited press conference in Mexico City, the Mexican president and the Republican presidential candidate faced the same insolvable problem: They wanted to appear like statesmen, but also come across as fighters who can stand up to a foreign politician with a wildly different agenda.
One of the most baffling aspects of Trump’s surprise jaunt to Mexico is the behavior of Peña Nieto. He is unpopular in Mexico (with a favorability rating of 23 percent) but Trump, who has proposed building a wall on the Mexican-U.S. border and has called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” is even more unpopular with Mexicans (with only a favorability rating of 2 percent). How could hosting Trump possibly help Peña Nieto?
At the beginning of the press conference, it appeared that Peña Nieto had made a massive mistake, since he was speaking about Trump with respect (as diplomacy dictates), which won’t go over well with the Mexican people. But as the speech progressed, it turned out to be an exercise in passive-aggressive international relations. Peña Nieto remained polite, but he refuted everyone of Trump’s notorious comments about Mexico. He argued that trade benefitted both countries, that NAFTA had been a success, that Mexico didn’t just export to the United States but purchased American goods, that immigration across the border had peaked a decade ago, and that the problems of drugs and crime are rooted in problems in both societies.
In effect, he fact-checked Trump while Trump stood next to him on the stage. Unfortunately, Peña Nieto’s passive aggressive approach is unlikely to win him many fans with proud Mexicans, who will remember him as the president who helped legitimize an American politician who insulted the honor of Mexico.
Trump suffered a similar defeat. While he might have hoped to gain some credit for appearing on stage with Peña Nieto while blustering about immigration and trade, Trump gave the game away when he admitted that they didn’t even discuss Trump’s central plank. “Who pays for the wall?” Trump admitted. “We didn’t discuss.” Trump’s whole game is dominance politics, so by flinching from his core issue, he came out on the losing end.