- President Donald Trump continues to level attacks against Mexico.
- But he appears to have some affinity for the country’s incoming president.
- Pragmatism and mutual reliance is likely to keep US-Mexico relations on an even keel, a former US official says.
President Donald Trump has expressed little but disdain for Mexico, from his campaign kick-off event when he referred to some Mexican immigrants as “rapists” to his continued insistence that Mexico will pay for his border wall.
Despite that hostility, Trump apparently feels some kind of affinity for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist politician known as “AMLO” who won an overwhelming victory in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election.
The US president sees some “of his renegade self in AMLO,” writes Mark Feierstein in an article for Americas Quarterly. Feierstein was senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama Administration and is now a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group.
Trump has even taken to calling Mexico’s president-elect “Juan Trump” in private, a senior government official told Feierstein.
Lopez Obrador, one-time mayor of Mexico City and two-time presidential candidate, has a political career that predates Trump, and his sweeping victory – winning 53% of the vote in a four-man race – was largely driven by issues unrelated to the US president, including domestic dismay about crime, corruption, and weak economic growth.
The two leaders have drawn comparisons to each other, largely based on their political style rather than their politics. But it’s not clear what led Trump to that moniker, Feierstein told Business Insider.
Trump may see Lopez Obrador as a “politician who talks about ‘Mexico first,’ or implies ‘Mexico first,’ and then maybe some of the rhetoric that he uses toward … the ‘mafia de poder,'” Feierstein said, referring to the “mafia of power” that Lopez Obrador frequently attacked as a representation of entrenched power and elite society in Mexico.
Trump also “may have seen references in the press comparing the two,” Feierstein said. That kind of coverage appeared frequently in the days after Lopez Obrador’s victory, but Feierstein said he doesn’t see the resemblance.
“I think that’s just wrong,” he said. “I think they’re very, very different figures.”
‘Pragmatism is going to reign’
Lopez Obrador, who will take office on December 1, issued sharp counters to Trump’s attacks on Mexico during the presidential campaign.
But the two leaders have made a show of cordiality in the days since the election.
Trump congratulated Lopez Obrador via Twitter late on July 1, saying he “look[ed] very much forward to working with him.”
The next day, Lopez Obrador said he had a “respectful” phone call with Trump and said his team was “conscious of the need to maintain good relations with the United States.”
Trump said he thought “the relationship will be a very good one” and that he thought Lopez Obrador would work with the US on immigration. A few days later, Lopez Obrador said he would invite Trump to his inauguration.
How that relationship will evolve remains uncertain. Trump may have a “sense that he can wall himself off” from Mexico on matters of trade and immigration, Feierstein said, but US officials likely see Lopez Obrador as someone with whom they can maintain good ties.
“I think there can be real effort on the US side at the [National Security Council], at the State Department, other agencies, to manage the relationship as best as possible,” he said. “I don’t think people in the administration are really concerned about AMLO. I think they believe and [are] hopeful that he will be pragmatic and that he’ll be someone they can work with.”
On the Mexican side, Lopez Obrador’s government is also likely to pursue a pragmatic course because of both domestic and foreign factors, Feierstein said.
“AMLO understands that Mexico needs the United States for obvious reasons,” he said. “It’s an economy very much dependent on the US, and he’s going to want to manage that relationship the best that he can, and that’s what he has said so far.”
During the presidential campaign, business and industry leaders expressed concern about the policies Lopez Obrador could pursue – some went as far as warning employees about voting for him.
His selection of Marcelo Ebrard – seen as a “pragmatic progressive,” Feierstein said – as foreign minister, also eased some concerns.
Ebrard, who did get-out-the-vote work on behalf of US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, doesn’t have the White House connections of his predecessor, Luis Videgaray, who is close to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Ebrard did work with Trump lawyer Rudi Giuliani briefly while he was mayor of Mexico City between 2006 and 2012.
Over the weekend, Ebrard said the US government has treated Mexico poorly but that Lopez Obrador will look for “areas of understanding” with Washington.
Ugly rhetoric from Trump is likely to reemerge, prompting strong responses from Lopez Obrador, Feierstein said, but the extensive ties between the two countries and policymakers recognizing the need to cooperate on important issues like trade, immigration, and law enforcement are likely to temper the tough talk.
“I think pragmatism is going to reign on both sides,” Feierstein said. “The reality is the countries need each other so badly.”