Are Trump and Mexican President Provoking Conflict to Distract From Low Approval Ratings at Home?

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a meeting with President Trump that was scheduled for next week, as tensions between the two countries rise. The move came after Trump announced plans Wednesday to expand the border wall between the US and Mexico — a wall Trump has repeatedly said he would force Mexico to pay for. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the US would impose a 20 percent tax on all goods imported from Mexico and use the proceeds to pay for the expanded border wall. But after widespread outrage at the plan, Spicer walked back his statements only hours later, saying the import tax was just “one idea.”

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has canceled a meeting with President Trump that was scheduled for next week, as tensions between the two countries rise. The move came after Trump announced plans Wednesday to expand the border wall between the US and Mexico — a wall Trump has repeatedly said he would force Mexico to pay for. Well, on Thursday, Mexico’s top diplomat, the foreign minister, was at the White House to help pave the way for his visit, when his team received word of a Trump tweet suggesting if Mexico weren’t willing to pay for the wall, it should cancel the trip. Trump later claimed the two leaders mutually canceled the upcoming meeting, a statement President Peña Nieto has refuted. Trump spoke more about his plan to expand the border wall later in the day after a meeting with Republican lawmakers in Philadelphia.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The hour of justice for the American worker has arrived. Border security is a serious, serious national issue and problem. A lack of security poses a substantial threat to the sovereignty and safety of the United States of America and its citizens. Most illegal immigration is coming from our southern border. I’ve said many times that the American people will not pay for the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: The US already has 700 miles of fencing, tens of thousands of motion sensors, thousands of law enforcement agents along the US-Mexico border. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the US would impose a 20 percent tax on all goods imported from Mexico, and use the proceeds to pay for the expanded wall. This was after the Mexican president canceled the presidential visit to see Trump. But after widespread outrage at what Spicer announced, he walked back his statements only hours later, saying the import tax was just “one idea.” The proposal would require new legislation. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the suggestion, saying on Twitter Mexico could retaliate with its own tariff and that it could be a, quote, “huge barrier” to economic growth. In a national address Wednesday night, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said his country will not pay for Trump’s wall.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PEÑA NIETO: [translated] I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue with the construction of the wall, which has, for years, far from uniting us, divided us. Mexico does not believe in walls. I have said, time and time again, Mexico will not pay for any wall.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Mexico, where we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program for the Center for International Policy. She’s joining us from San Miguel de Allende.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Laura.

LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is going on now with this escalation of tension and the Mexican president canceling this presidential visit to see Trump next week?

LAURA CARLSEN: We are witnessing a very bizarre situation. This was a direct provocation to Mexico. By tweeting on Thursday morning that if Peña Nieto didn’t agree to pay for the wall, he might as well not come, he was essentially forcing President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his trip. There’s no way he could have sustained this.

It’s no surprise that Mexico won’t pay for the wall. This is the most inane proposal in probably the recent history of diplomacy — or, I should say, anti-diplomacy. There’s no self-respecting nation on Earth, I guarantee you, that would agree to pay for a wall built by a foreign country, on foreign soil, that’s essentially built to keep out its own citizens, who have been defined as undesirable elements.

It’s important to note here that this definition has almost no basis in fact. In the clip that we played about Trump’s statement that our southern borders are insecure, there is no evidence — and I’ve talked to people at NORCOM and through the security system about this — that there’s any threat coming up from Mexico over the southern border into the United States. In fact, the United States has paid millions and millions to supposedly secure the southern border, and what it has caused is this racist reaction against Mexicans as if they were threatening, that actually helped carry Donald Trump into the presidency.

So, this international crisis in diplomacy was carefully planned, and we have to take that into account. What happens? On Wednesday, Donald Trump issues executive orders calling to begin construction of the wall, and a series of orders regarding immigration enforcement measures to begin deportation of many — there’s over 5 million undocumented Mexicans in the country. This happens the same day that Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray arrives in [Washington] to begin negotiating the meeting between Donald Trump and Peña Nieto the following Tuesday. That’s a slap in the face. So that immediately began to cause a crisis. There was major pressure on Peña Nieto, starting Wednesday, from Mexico to say, “You cannot go to this meeting.” And then, the next day, he tweets this again, forcing Peña Nieto to cancel. So, what he’s essentially saying, and with the 20 percent tax, is “We can destroy you.” He’s setting up a situation that not only bullies Mexico, but places them in a no-win situation and could lead to dire consequences for both countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Mexican-US border organizing, activists on both sides of the border, Laura?

LAURA CARLSEN: Well, what we’re seeing is, since the Trump campaign, there has been a “no Trump” movement coming up, with committees in both countries. And now that he’s president, there’s a lot of scrambling to build binational connections, essentially, where there’s a recognition that the threat of Donald Trump to both the people of the United States and to the people of Mexico is severe. We see it here with the way he has cast the binational relationship into jeopardy in a show that we don’t really know what the purpose is, if it’s to strengthen his hand in renegotiation of NAFTA, if it’s to simply keep up a campaign promise that was always impossible, or if it’s to keep Mexico in the news in order to create conditions where he can mobilize his base to support this massive deportation and aggression against the Mexican community in the United States.

So, people are coming together. They’re beginning, in many sectors, to seek connections that were built at the beginning of the NAFTA negotiations, when there was a recognition that many of the terms of NAFTA could have a negative impact on people. And there, it’s worth mentioning that in terms of this NAFTA recognition, we know from 20 years of experience it’s never been a question of which nation wins or loses, but a question of the people — workers, consumers and others — losing as transnational corporations gain a whole series of privileges. So they began to get together at that time. Then it kind of waned for a while, and now it’s happening again.

Of course, migrant organizations that are in the United States and are defending the rights of migrants there, as they prepare for these deportations and the hate crimes arising ever since his campaign, with the kind of language that he [inaudible] — preparing for the defense of their families in the United States and also to receive people who will be deported and also people who are returning. And this is happening in the labor sector, as you begin to see the attacks that will be coming from the Trump administration there. And in general, the public is preparing, because these measures, when you talk about a 20 percent tax on exports, could throw Mexico almost immediately into an economic crisis. And that could increase poverty — I mean, the whole range of consequences. We’re not just talking about a trade war. We’re talking about a major collapse politically and economically south of the border, which is no good for anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this, Laura, has anything to do with President Trump’s historic low ratings in the polls? I mean the lowest in modern history, when he came in at something like 34 or 32 percent. Do you think he’s trying to gin up something here?

LAURA CARLSEN: Absolutely. I think this is a factor. And as political analysts, as people who analyze international relations, I know that we’ve had to start thinking in different ways with this Trump presidency, because there’s this psychological factor, you know, this macho, bullying personality that indicates that they’re not always rational considerations that come into play, such as provoking an international crisis with a close ally, a neighbor and the third-largest trade partner.

So, here he comes in, polls showing from 32 percent to maybe the 40s, lowest approval rating of an incoming president in recent history. What does a weak president do in that situation? He picks a fight, and especially if his name is Donald Trump and he is who he is. So, picking a fight with Mexico, though, is what is probably the bizarre factor, of course, for us who analyze this relationship, because, again, it is an ally. However, it mobilizes his base. It’s been his wedge issue since the beginning of his campaign. It increases this racist environment. And it makes him look strong.

Now, he’s also picked a fight with one of the weakest presidents in the world. President Enrique Peña Nieto has an approval rating now of 12 percent, according to some polls. So he’s between a rock and a hard place. He has his entire population saying, “You have to stand up to the United States,” and a huge opposition movement. There are people calling for his resignation in the streets of Mexico, a news item that’s — that doesn’t come out, with everything else that’s happening in the Trump administration. And then he has this necessity among the Mexican elite, his own group, really, to maintain a relationship almost at any cost with the United States. So, the situation, with all these factors coming into play, and especially the unstable actions and personality of Donald Trump thrown into the mix, has created a very uncertain environment, in which we’re already feeling the impact with the drop in the peso, and a lot of uncertainty regarding investment and other economic and political factors here in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Carlsen, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, speaking to us from Mexico.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Donald Trump’s voter fraud allegations. Stay with us.