President Donald Trump sent a team of top officials to Mexico on Friday to meet with President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist who has been elected at a low point in relations between the neighboring countries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading the high-level delegation, which includes Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Trade, immigration and security was on the agenda – and the contentious tussle of the border – according to a senior State Department official.
The one-day visit includes meetings with outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who hands power to Lopez Obrador on December 1, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.
Kushner may have a problem when he returns to the U.S., however, if the delegation brings back sensitive intelligence: While he recently was given a ‘top secret’ security clearance after 16 months of waiting, he doesn’t yet have the highest-level status.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mexico’s president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador met in Mexico City on Friday as the Trump administration tries to charm the new leader south of the border
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (front) and senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner (back) were part of the delegation, along with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
Big moment: OMLA shook hands with Jared at his party’s headquarters in Mexico City while newly appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard (right) looked on
Kushner had that top-shelf status on an interim basis for the first year of the Trump presidency, until Chief of Staff John Kelly canceled it as part of a security-tightening effort.
U.S.-Mexico relations have been strained since Trump won the White House in 2016 after a campaign laced with anti-Mexican insults, attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and vows to make Mexico pay for a border wall.
Since then, U.S. tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum, Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on undocumented immigrants, separation of immigrant families and Pena Nieto’s two abrupt cancellations of visits to Washington have only added to the tension.
Lopez Obrador, widely known as ‘AMLO,’ pledged during the campaign to ‘put [Trump] in his place.’
But both men say they had a positive phone call the day after Mexico’s July 1 election, which Lopez Obrador won in a landslide, with over 53 percent of the vote – more than 30 points higher than his nearest rival.
The State Department official described the trip as a ‘testament to the importance the administration and the United States place on the bilateral relationship.’
Current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (center) held a more formal meeting wwith the American delegation
It’s not Air Force One, but this Boeing C-32 plane carried the U.S. officials to Mexico City on Friday; it’s the same model aircraft as the 757-200 that President Trump’s real estate company owns
Nielsen (right) raised the sticky issue of Central Americans traversing the length of Mexico to jump the American border
But thorny issues could make for a tough visit.
The Homeland Security Department said Nielsen would raise the sensitive subject of Central American immigrants who cross Mexico to reach the United States.
She was expected to ‘reaffirm the necessity for regional governments, international organizations, and the private sector to share responsibility for Central American migrant flows and find options for these individuals to remain within or closer to their countries of origin,’ her office said in a statement.
Promising a change in direction, Lopez Obrador was swept to office by a wave of outrage with corruption and brutal violence driven by Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
Despite their ideological differences, some commentators have drawn parallels between Trump and Lopez Obrador: both are free trade skeptics with populist tendencies who mobilized a disgruntled base with anti-establishment campaigns.
Trump has even reportedly taken to calling Lopez Obrador ‘Juan Trump’ in private.
Pompeo’s delegation met with Lopez Obrador at his offices, in an aging house with little security in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood.
The tensest topic other than trade is Trump’s plan to build a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico to secure the border against illegal imimgration, human trafficking and narcotics
Part of the existing border wall in San Ysidro, California is pictured here; Trump has vowed to make Mexico pay for a wall along the entire length of the frontier
Lopez Obrador, 64, has acknowledged the house is an unusual venue to welcome high-level dignitaries.
‘It’s not very big because the next government doesn’t want ostentatious offices. We’re going to put an end to the paraphernalia of power,’ said the president-elect, who has raised eyebrows for refusing to use bodyguards.
There was a heavier-than-usual security cordon at the large red-and-white house on Friday, with swarms of waiting journalists kept at a distance of some 30 meters.
The meeting was attended by Lopez Obrador’s future ministers of finance, economy and security, as well as his choice to lead the renegotiation of NAFTA, the 1994 deal that has helped turn Mexico into a major exporter — with 80 percent of those exports shipped to the United States.
Also at the meeting was Lopez Obrador’s pick for foreign minister, former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard.
In a potential sore spot for the Trump administration, Ebrard worked on Latino get-out-the-vote campaigns on behalf of Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election.