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Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto scrambled on Thursday to control the fallout from a meeting with Donald Trump that left him looking like a pawn in the US Republican presidential candidate’s campaign over illegal immigration.
If the president had been hoping that his invitation to a man he brands a “threat” to the countries’ relations would change Mr Trump’s stance over immigration — which includes building a wall along the US-Mexico border — then his plan failed. Hours after their meeting in Mexico City on Wednesday, Mr Trump at a speech in Arizona vowed “no amnesty” for immigrants and maintained his insistence that Mexico would pay to barricade the border if he won the White House.
“Trump did whatever he liked with Enrique Peña Nieto, who gave a brilliant demonstration of his weakness,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political commentator.
Mr Peña Nieto’s popularity ratings have been hitting record lows and his inability to talk tough — at least in public — to the New York billionaire means they are likely to sink further. “We have lost respect for him,” Mr Aguayo said.
Mr Peña Nieto failed to tell the media after his meeting with Mr Trump that he had insisted there was no way Mexico would pay for any wall, something he later claimed in a tweet to have done.
Mr Trump acted like the host of their news conference, taking questions from the floor even though Mexican protocol never allows them. He stole the headlines, assuring reporters that he had discussed the wall with “my friend”, but not who should pay for it.
Mr Peña Nieto was forced on to the back foot. While Mr Trump held court at the presidential palace on his first foreign trip as a candidate, Mr Peña Nieto leaned on his lectern, his lips pursed. He later faced a grilling during a television interview.
Damage limitation attempts continued on Thursday, with a front-page article signed by the president in El Universal newspaper seeking to explain why he invited Mr Trump. But it was too late. “Trump uses EPN”, read the headline of Reforma.
Even Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate whom Mr Peña Nieto has also invited, had nothing good to say, retweeting a comment that “There’s an old Mexican proverb that says, ‘Tell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are’.”
Mr Peña Nieto presents his annual state of the nation report later on Thursday in a town hall-style meeting with young people closed to the media.
He has been seeking to spin his achievements in four years in office that started with him being hailed Mexico’s saviour because of ambitious reforms such as liberalising the energy sector and reforming the education system.
But the economy is faltering and the central bank on Wednesday downgraded its growth forecasts again. Meanwhile, security remains a headache, and education reform is being held to ransom by a dissident teachers’ union.
“If there was one thing [Mr Peña Nieto] could have done to unite the country against him, it was bringing Trump to Mexico yesterday,” said Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister.
He saw little chance of a rebound in the president’s final two years in office. “I’m afraid it’s too late. I don’t think there’s anything he could do now, and the baggage he has been dragging around is getting heavier.”
Mr Peña Nieto has struggled to recover from a string of scandals, over his wife’s luxury mansion paid for by a government contractor and the disappearance of 43 students instigated by corrupt police and a drugs cartel two years ago.
Armando Ríos Piter, a leftist senator, will introduce a bill in Congress next Tuesday aiming to protect Mexico in case Mr Trump is elected.
The bill, backed by Agustín Barrios Gómez, head of the Mexican Image Foundation, would bar the use of any Mexican money to fund the border wall. If any of the $24bn in annual Mexican remittances were seized in the US to fund the barricade, Mexico would impound the same amount in US cash.
And if Mr Trump made good on threats to rip up Nafta, the North American free trade pact, the bill would insist that Mexico re-examine all 75 binational treaties to see if they were in the Mexican interest — dating back to 1848 when Mexico lost half its territory to the US.
Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu wrote in Spanish newspaper El País: “168 years ago, Antonio López de Santa Ana handed over nearly half our territory. Yesterday, President Peña Nieto handed over what little dignity we had left.”