PHOENIX — After more than a year of bashing Mexico as an enemy of the United States that endangers American jobs and safety, Donald Trump sounded a more conciliatory tone during a whirlwind visit south of the border, emphasizing the “bond” the U.S. shares with its neighbor.
But after a hastily arranged meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City Wednesday, the Republican presidential nominee said the two steered clear of one of the most divisive issues between them: who would pay for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration.
“Who pays for the wall? We didn’t discuss it,” Trump told reporters during a brief press availability with Peña Nieto after their roughly hourlong sit-down at the presidential palace in Mexico City. “We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment for the wall. That will be for a later date.”
But an hour after the meeting, Peña Nieto said in a message posted on Twitter that he did tell Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall, contradicting the GOP nominee’s claim. It was unclear why the Mexican president did not correct Trump during the press conference, and the Trump campaign had no immediate response.
“At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto’s post read in Spanish.
Trump’s call for a wall that Mexico would pay for has been a central theme of his unlikely bid for the presidency — and one he has mentioned at nearly every campaign rally he’s held since entering the race in June 2015.
The meeting came just hours before Trump was set to deliver a major speech in Phoenix clarifying his immigration policies, which have been increasingly muddled in recent weeks as he has sought to expand his appeal to voters beyond his conservative base. And it raises the question of whether Trump, who has seemed to moderate some points of his immigration plan in recent days, will continue to stake out a softer tone on the issue.
Trump has repeatedly clashed with Peña Nieto and other Mexican leaders, who have openly insisted they will never shoulder the cost of building the proposed structure. They have also been highly critical of his incendiary rhetoric toward Mexicans, including his suggestion that many Mexican immigrants illegally entering the country are rapists and drug dealers.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump declared in his announcement speech in June 2015, a charge he has repeated many times since. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some — I assume — are good people.”
Peña Nieto has been highly critical of what he has called Trump’s “anti-Mexican” rhetoric, even going so far as to compare it to the “strident” tone used by dictators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But in what he said was an effort to pursue a “dialogue,” Peña Nieto late last week invited both Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, to meet and discuss U.S./Mexican interests.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox didn’t hold back Wednesday morning when asked on CNN about Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico later in the day.
“He is not welcome to Mexico. By 130 million people, we don’t like him. We don’t want him. We reject his message,” Fox said on “New Day.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton obliquely criticized Donald Trump’s surprise foray into foreign affairs saying in a speech to the American Legion in Ohio that building alliances and coalitions takes more than a “photo op.”
“It takes consistency and reliability,” Clinton said of forming alliances. “Actually, it’s just like building personal relationships. People have to get to know that they can count on you — that you won’t say one thing one day and something totally different the next.”
In a move that caught even some of his own staff by surprise, Trump accepted and announced late Tuesday that he would travel to Mexico City ahead of his immigration speech. Among those surprised seemed to be Peña Nieto, who while noting the policy differences between the two men on Wednesday, still praised Trump for making the trip.
“We may not agree on various topics, but your presence here shows that we have much in common,” the Mexican president said.
Still, there were occasionally awkward moments as Peña Nieto seemed to school Trump on the issues that divide them. He spoke of how Mexicans had been “hurt” by Trump’s harsh rhetoric and argued his country deserves respect as a close U.S. ally. And he strongly defended NAFTA, a trade deal that Trump has criticized as a “disaster” for the U.S. that needs to be renegotiated or completely voided.
At one point, the Mexican president pointed to statistics he said suggested illegal immigration from Mexico into the U.S. had slowed since its “highest point” 10 years ago.
Trump, who stood stiffly at a podium a few feet away, shifted awkwardly, a sullen look on his face.
But Peña Nieto, in an attempt to strike his own conciliatory tone, acknowledged the “shared challenge” of illegal immigration, and insisted the border be viewed as an opportunity for both countries.
It was a tone Trump himself seemed to adopt when it was his turn to speak. Reading from written notes, the GOP nominee lavished praise on the Mexican people — speaking of the “tremendous feeling” he had for Mexican-Americans he calls friends and employees.
“They are amazing people, amazing people,” Trump said.
But he defended his call for better trade deals with Mexico and other foreign interests. And he refused to back off building a wall — casting illegal immigration as a problem that plagues both the U.S. and Mexico. Citing violence from drug cartels and others, he described the illegal trek to the U.S. border as a “humanitarian disaster” that is not “fair” to anyone.
“Having a secure border is a sovereign right and mutually beneficial,” Trump said.
Liz Goodwin and Colin Campbell contributed to this story.