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U.S. and Mexico share diplomatic dialogue amid tensions

February 23, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The two heads of the State and Homeland Security Departments traveled to Mexico for what was originally seen as a fence-mending mission after months of diplomatic turbulence. But with new, tougher U.S. immigration policies taking shape, the visit was what Mr. Trump called “a tough trip.” Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Gardiner Harris of The New York Times and Reuters’ Yeganeh Torbati.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The secretaries of state and homeland security were in Mexico City today on what was originally seen as a fence-mending mission after months of turbulence.

But with new immigration policies roiling the relationship, it shaped up to be what Mr. Trump called a tough trip.

JOHN KELLY, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary: Let me be very, very clear: There will be no, repeat, no mass deportations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on a joint mission with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson days after Kelly’s department signaled a crackdown on illegal immigration.

JOHN KELLY: Everything we do in DHS will be done legally and according to human rights and the legal justice system of the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This morning, Mr. Trump said the U.S. needed a more muscular deportation force:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody’s seen before. And they’re the bad ones. And it’s a military operation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Mexico City, Kelly seemed to walk back his boss’ words.

JOHN KELLY: No, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations, none.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The White House press secretary later sought to clarify the president’s comments.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: The president was using that as an adjective. It’s happening with precision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The visit, billed as reassurance to concerned Mexican counterparts, comes amid heightened tensions between the neighbors.

Earlier this week, a memo from the Department of Homeland Security vastly expanded the government’s mandate to quickly deport immigrants not convicted of serious crimes. The memo also said anyone caught illegally crossing the southern border would be sent back to Mexico, regardless of their home country.

President Trump has ordered a review of all aid to Mexico, raising speculation that the administration may cut those funds to pay for Mr. Trump’s long-promised border wall. Concerned Mexicans have urged President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government to stand up to the Trump administration.

With Tillerson at his side, Mexico’s foreign minister called for dialogue, but said his country was — quote — “worried and irritated” by the policy shifts.

LUIS VIDEGARAY, Foreign Minister, Mexico (through interpreter): In order to overcome the insults, to overcome the negative feelings that, without a doubt today prevail, what will matter are the actions, more than the words.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tillerson said it was natural for two strong countries to disagree, but that progress had been made.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: There’s no mistaking that the rule of law matters along both sides of our border. We discussed the importance of fair treatment of all those in this transit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Later, Tillerson and Kelly met the Mexican president, who has sparred with Mr. Trump both during campaign and since the inauguration, over the wall, immigration and trade.

Joining me now to discuss the trip to Mexico and how Secretary Tillerson’s State Department is taking shape are Gardiner Harris of The New York Times. He’s in Mexico City right now. And Yeganeh Torbati, she covers the State Department for Reuters.

Gardiner, let me start with you.

The word choice by the president to say military operation today, and Secretary Kelly going out of his way to make sure that everyone knew that it wasn’t the military, it almost made it seem like there were two messengers, two messages, two teams.

GARDINER HARRIS, The New York Times: Right.

Well, that’s been the problem all along during the Trump administration, particularly for the State Department. And leaders around the world are having trouble figuring out who they should listen to. Should they listen to the State Department and Rex Tillerson, who is very straight? He’s sort of a traditional Republican. He’s trying to keep alliances and ties across the world to our various allies, particularly with Mexico.

Or should they listen to the more bombastic statements from Trump? Tillerson was in Europe last week trying to calm everything down. So was Mike Pence, saying that we value NATO, we value E.U.

But those are not messages that President Trump has said. He’s insulted the E.U. He’s insulted NATO. And the same thing is going on in Mexico right now.

In fact, just today, as you played, the president had talked to a bunch of CEOs in a roundtable, and he mentioned Mexico five or six different times, suggesting that Mexico has really been stealing jobs from the United States, has this $70 billion trade surplus, and that that has to stop.

And he sort of said, look, I want to have good relations with Mexico, but, if we don’t, we don’t.

And so that gives, obviously, some very difficult times for the diplomats here, who are trying to certainly change some things about immigration and enforcement with the Mexicans, but keeping what has been a vital alliance with the Mexicans, because the Mexicans, of course, there is not now any immigration of Mexicans in the United States.

Most of the immigration is from Central America. And the Mexicans are crucial allies in slowing that immigration.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yeganeh Torbati, we were just saying you have been covering the State Department. But there haven’t been any daily press briefings since Mr. Tillerson took office.

This is also, in some ways, the opposite of the personality of John Kerry, who put himself in the middle of everything, was taking questions all the time.

YEGANEH TORBATI, Reuters: Right.

I mean, Secretary Tillerson comes from a very different background. He comes from a private sector background and then, in particular, from ExxonMobil, where they really weren’t well-known for their public engagement or their engagement with the press.

And, just as you said, there hasn’t been a State Department press briefing since January 19, the last full day of President Obama’s presidency. And that has taken away a megaphone that the State Department traditionally has to speak on issues of international importance, not only to put their own views out there, but also to respond to other countries.

And that briefing is not just useful for reporters like myself. It’s also looked to very closely by countries around the world, both allies and adversaries, for clues on, what is the U.S. policy towards Israeli settlements, towards the arrests of journalists by Turkey, for example, and other things that may happen around the world?

And it’s also looked to within the State Department. Preparing the different bureaus for that press briefing, sending up talking points, is part of sometimes the policy process itself. And without that daily kind of organizing structure, there is a little bit of a sense of loss right now at the State Department within those kind of lower ranks and within the bureaus.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gardiner Harris, today, we heard the Mexican leaders say, we’re willing to talk about immigration, but we also want to talk about trade and security.

Why did they want to lump those in?

GARDINER HARRIS: Well, exactly.

Well, for the Mexicans, of course, there’s a lot of issues that happen at the border, not just issues that are of concern to the United States, but are issues that are of concern to Mexico.

For instance, there is a huge amount of guns that come from the United States into Mexico. There is a lot of bulk cash that comes from the United States into Mexico that feeds the narco-trafficking gangs in Mexico.

So, Mexico, of course, wants to expand the list of things to talk about because this is a two-way relationship. And for the Mexicans, they want to help the United States in the issues that the United States is worried about, but only if they have a little bit of help, too.

And, you know, Mexico, at this point, has largely been quiet. They have taken a lot of bombast from the United States. The president here, President Pena Nieto, has not been popular because he has not really spat back at Trump.

But the Mexicans have a lot of levers here. They are the largest buyers, for instance, of corn in the United States. They are the largest buyers of a huge number of other agricultural products from the United States.

And if things go south in this relationship — it has gone south tremendously over the last month.


GARDINER HARRIS: If it gets really worse, the Mexicans can make things hurt in the United States in places where the United States really doesn’t want to have it go bad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yeganeh Torbati, there has been this narrative, fair or unfair, that the State Department has been somewhat sidelined in the major decision processes that have already faced the Trump administration and perhaps, in certain times, they have not even been consulted before executive orders and so forth are rolled out.

YEGANEH TORBATI: I think that we want to be cautious.

Rex Tillerson has been on the job for about three weeks now. Things are — he’s still sort of getting his bearings. But it’s true that we have a number of data points that suggest that there isn’t lot of consultation.

Of course, the State Department, Rex Tillerson’s aides would push back on that. They say he’s in touch with President Trump several times a day. But we know, from our reporting and from others’ reporting, that he wasn’t consulted on any sort of change to the White House language regarding U.S. support for the two-state solution, which happened last week.

That was a surprise to him. And we don’t know if that is deliberate, or was it just sort of a result of the chaos that seems to be evident at the White House right now?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Yeganeh Torbati from Reuters, Gardiner Harris from The New York Times, thank you both.