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Trump talks of building a wall — and a relationship — on visit to Mexico

August 31, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto Wednesday ahead of a speech on immigration. In the past, Trump has spoken of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals; Peña Nieto has compared Trump to Hitler. How did this meeting come to be? Gwen Ifill talks to Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute and The Arizona Republic’s Dan Nowicki.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We begin with Donald Trump’s day trip to Mexico City. It dominated the political headlines and drew even more attention to a high-profile speech he gives tonight on immigration.

It was the unlikeliest of summits, Donald Trump, who launched his campaign by speaking of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and made other inflammatory remarks.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: It is a great honor to be invited by you, Mr. President, a great, great honor. Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And President Enrique Pena Nieto, who’s compared him to Adolf Hitler.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, Mexico (through translator): I have also voiced the grievances that we have felt in Mexico because of the statements that have been issued. But I’m sure that his interest is genuine in wanting to build a relationship and lead our societies to stability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Trump agreed today on building a relationship, but he has also repeatedly called for building a wall along the border.

DONALD TRUMP: We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment of the wall. That will be for a later date. This was a very preliminary meeting. I think it was an excellent meeting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lately, he’s seemed to suggest his stance on immigration could soften. And his visit today came hours before he delivers a major speech on the subject this evening in Phoenix.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a humanitarian disaster, the dangerous treks, the abuse by gangs and cartels and the extreme physical dangers, and it must be solved. It must be solved quickly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Trump’s visit to Mexico City sparked protests there today. It also turned up the political heat on Pena Nieto, who’s already widely unpopular in Mexico.

A political rival, former President Vicente Fox, condemned the invitation to Trump and even apologized.

VICENTE FOX, Former President, Mexico: He is not welcome to Mexico. By 130 million people, we don’t like him, we don’t want him, we reject his visit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Pena Nieto has invited Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as well. Her campaign says she will meet with him at the appropriate time.

Today, she addressed the American Legion Convention in Cincinnati, and dismissed Trump’s Mexican trip as too little, too late.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: You don’t build a coalition by insulting our friends or acting like a loose cannon. And it certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Clinton also called for strong American leadership in the world, and accused Trump of advocating retreat.

HILLARY CLINTON: Threatening to walk away from our alliances, ignoring the importance that they still are to us, is not only wrong; it’s dangerous. If I’m your president, our friends will always know America will have your backs, and we expect you to have ours.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Trump is scheduled to address the same American Legion Convention tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the Mexico City meeting between that nation’s president and GOP nominee Donald Trump, how it came to be, and how it was received, we turn now to Ambassador Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, and Dan Nowicki, national political reporter for The Arizona Republic.

Dan Nowicki, since Donald Trump is going to be in your town tonight giving this big immigration speech, maybe you can answer what Donald Trump was hoping to accomplish with the surprise trip to Mexico, as well as with the speech tonight.

DAN NOWICKI, The Arizona Republic: Right.

Well I think it gave him an opportunity to look presidential and kind of look more serious on immigration. He’s been criticized a lot, and a lot of the criticism has focused on his proposals as just not very serious or realistic.

And first and foremost is his significant signature issue of building the wall and having Mexico pay for it. And it was a little interesting. He went down to Mexico and didn’t raise the issue of Mexico paying for the wall.

So I think it’s a little interesting to see if kind of the soft-spoken tone that Trump took in Mexico City will carry over across the border when he comes here in Phoenix. I have covered several Trump rallies here in Arizona and one in Las Vegas, and, you know, one of the biggest applause lines is building the wall, where he leads the audience in asking them who’s going to pay for the wall. They yell Mexico.

So, I wonder if he’s going to use that line tonight in Phoenix.

GWEN IFILL: Hmm. Well, we will be listening to see.

Ambassador Noriega, if Donald Trump was trying to look presidential with this trip, what was President Pena trying to do?

ROGER NORIEGA, American Enterprise Institute: I think Pena Nieto was taking a big risk taking on this meeting. He’s extraordinarily unpopular already in Mexico. And in the last 24 hours…

GWEN IFILL: His popularity somewhere in the 20s.

ROGER NORIEGA: In the 20s, mid-20s perhaps, probably going down.

In the last 24 hours, Mexican pundits were saying, you know, he’d better confront Trump on some of the uglier things that he has said, he better defend the dignity of the Mexican people and Mexican immigrants. He should make it very clear that Mexico will have nothing to do with paying for whatever kind of wall Trump wants to build.

And none of that happened.

GWEN IFILL: Well, he did talk about respecting Mexican people. He did talk about that.

ROGER NORIEGA: Right, but nothing in the form of an apology or some kind of acknowledgment from Trump.

So I think, quite frankly, if you’re a Trump supporter today, you would have to say that he achieved his objective by swooping into town with this kind of drive-by diplomacy, but Pena Nieto had a very bad day.

GWEN IFILL: Do we think that Pena Nieto maybe had a change of heart? And this is the man who likens Donald Trump to Mussolini and Hitler.

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, there is no telling what — how the discussions went.

But I’m sure that pundits, the Mexican people would have expected a much more forceful public statement from their president while Trump was there as a guest of the president in Mexico City.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Nowicki, we know that Donald Trump isn’t very popular among Hispanics in general, Mexican-Americans perhaps in particular, and I wonder whether this kind of appearance, this kind of joint appearance, might open up lines of communication, or is everything set in stone at this point politically?

DAN NOWICKI: Yes, I don’t really think his audience is, you know, the Latinos in the United States. I think he’s kind of aiming more at some of the moderate Republican white people who he’s lost, especially here in Arizona.

He’s hemorrhaged a lot of a moderate Republicans who normally would be backing the presidential nominee of their party, but this year are making a pretty close race with Hillary Clinton in what is usually, traditionally, a red state, Arizona.

GWEN IFILL: We talked a bit about the building the wall idea, the border discussion, but there were other issues which apparently were raised during this conversation.

One of them that they don’t agree about, Roger Noriega, is NAFTA. Donald Trump says he thinks it’s a disaster and has stolen American jobs. And that’s not what we heard from President Pena Nieto.

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, the very superficial joint press conference really didn’t touch on any detail on the terms of NAFTA and the mutual beneficial relationships.

And that’s because Trump, quite frankly, I think, is incapable of carrying on a serious conversation about the details of the benefits that accrue to the United States in terms of our national security, our economic security, the number of jobs created by NAFTA, six million jobs in the United States created by trade with Mexico alone.

And I think that there was a failure on Pena Nieto to make that in a strong way. As a matter of fact, his suggestion that there are parts of NAFTA that could be renegotiated I think was kind of a capitulation because, there was a failure to address the genuine benefits that we accrue from NAFTA and, frankly, challenge Trump’s failure to command the details and understand those details.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Nowicki, let’s talk politics for a minute, because you had a big primary in your state yesterday. John McCain, who has endorsed Donald Trump, but not enthusiastically, did very well. Jeff Flake, the other senator, has been very anti-Trump.

But in a moment like this today and in a turn like that he pulled off today, did he manage to trump Hillary Clinton on a day when there was very little attention paid to her big speech?

DAN NOWICKI: Well, I think he did. I think he certainly stole the spotlight.

And I think if you’re in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, you have got to be scratching your head a little bit and wondering if you missed an opportunity here as well. You know, whether or not he’s going to win over something like Jeff Flake, who has been very critical of him, remains to be seen.

But I think Flake has kind of been encouraging him to go in this direction and kind of reach out to Latinos in the United States and also kind of cut back on the anti-Mexico rhetoric. So it might help a little bit on that end.

GWEN IFILL: And what are the expectations, Dan, tonight for tonight’s speech in Phoenix?

DAN NOWICKI: Well, I think everyone really wants to know what Trump is going to say about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who have settled in the United States.

So, that’s kind of a big question. And I don’t think any of the immigration reformers are really expecting him to change much. I think they see this as a lot of more of the same.

I think if you hear him saying something like, oh, we’re going to enforce the laws, we’re going to secure the border, I think you’re just going to see him basically sticking with what he’s been saying all along, maybe wording it a little bit more moderately.

But no one really expects him to go too far in terms of embracing any kind of, you know, comprehensive immigration reform or anything like that.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Ambassador Noriega, was today in the end a discipline test for both the Mexican president and the Republican presidential nominee?


I think certainly Trump passed that test in being able to sort of carry on this moderate discourse and not offend anybody in particular. On the other hand, I think, for Pena Nieto, a bad day. He’s already very unpopular. I think that the political implications in Mexico will be bad for his party.


Ambassador Roger Noriega and Dan Nowicki of The Arizona Republic, thank you both very much.


GWEN IFILL: Online, we take another look at the stakes behind Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona tonight. You can watch a stream of that speech on our home page,