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What Is Mexico's President Likely To Gain From His White House Trip?


Mexico's president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will meet President Trump at the White House today. It is his first foreign trip since taking power in Mexico. The two leaders are meeting to celebrate the new regional trade pact, which also involves Canada. But Canada's prime minister declined this invitation, so this, today, will just be a party of two. Joining us now to talk about the event, NPR Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn and NPR's White House correspondent, Franco Ordoñez. Welcome to you both.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Franco, let's start with how President Trump sees this meeting today. What does he have to gain from it?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, it gives him a chance to talk about one of his key accomplishments, the USMCA. Overhauling NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was a core campaign promise in 2016. So it's kind of a victory lap seeing it go into effect.

MARTIN: And this is coming at a time when President Trump, I guess we should say, has had a tough few months, so might be looking for a bit of a distraction?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, exactly. The cases of the coronavirus have really been rising. The economy has been rocky. He's been criticized for his response to protest about racial inequality. You know, I talked to Republican strategist Alex Conant. And he told me this is a chance for Trump to turn the page.

ALEX CONANT: The president's had a really tough couple of weeks. And he needs some sort of reset. I think sitting in the Oval Office with another head of state is an opportunity to change the topic and hopefully turn the page on what's been a tough couple of weeks for him.

MARTIN: Carrie, let's look at this from the Mexican president's perspective. What's he looking for here?

KAHN: I'd say pretty much the same as what Franco just told you. Lopez Obrador gets to change the conversation and focus on this accomplishment that he touts to the trade pact between the three countries. You know, Lopez Obrador really does need some good news. It's just a lot of bad out of Mexico these days. The coronavirus cases are still on the rise, more than 32,000 dead now. And Mexico just passed France and Spain and the number of deaths. And violence is still raging in many parts of the country. And the economy is reeling. Mexico lost more than a million formal jobs due to the pandemic. And forecasters say the economy could contract by as much as 10%. So the trade pact is good news for Lopez Obrador. And he repeatedly says that, well, it is key to Mexico's economic recovery.

MARTIN: But, Carrie, do Mexicans want to see their president - you know, I don't know if they're going to shake hands or not depending on the pandemic and how they feel about it in the moment, but being next to President Trump? I mean, is that what Mexicans want to see right now?

KAHN: Well, the trip is getting a lot of play in the press because, like you said, this is his first foreign trip. And in keeping with his populist persona, he flew to D.C. on a commercial airline. That's a challenging task during the pandemic, especially since airlines have really cut back and there are no direct flights now from Mexico City to D.C. He had to make a layover in Atlanta. But polls do show that, you know, almost 60% of Mexicans are in favor of the president meeting Trump. But many people I talked to say they just hope the visit will help the country get new jobs. It's all about the economy for them.

But Trump is still a much-disliked figure here. And it's the pundits and analysts and opposition politicians and diplomats that are - former diplomats - that are just outraged by the visit and have been railing against the trip for days. They're just dumbfounded that the Mexican president will go out of his way to visit Trump at the White House just months before the U.S. election after all that anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric Trump has used against them. Many here just say it's just a big political risk for Lopez Obrador to stand next to Trump and take photos with someone so widely disliked in Mexico.

MARTIN: So, Franco, I mean, to that point, immigration has been a huge issue for President Trump. He and his administration have made every effort to keep Mexican immigrants out of this country. How does that aspect of the meeting play out, especially leading up to the election here?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, political strategists will tell you that presidents have a lot of advantages when they run for reelection. Holding these sort of diplomatic events at the White House is one of those advantages. And this is a chance to talk about two of his bread and butter campaign issues - immigration, as you know, and trade. And I expect we will hear him talk about the wall, another one of the signature issues that's related. And that could resonate with this base, given that he's standing next to the Mexican president. You know, and at the same time, there is the possibility of showing some Hispanic voters that he's improved U.S. relationship with Mexico, which is one of our biggest trading partners.

MARTIN: Carrie, Mexico's president came into office - I mean, he was critical of President Trump. And now there seems to be this about-face. They're working together and even thinking about collaborating on immigration. How did the relationship change? What happened?

KAHN: It is quite a unique alliance that has developed between the two. Clearly, Lopez Obrador decided early on it was better to appease Trump than fight him. And I talked with Carlos Bravo, who's a professor at Mexico City university here. He's not a fan of Lopez Obrador's trip or many of his policies, you know, bowing to Trump, especially on immigration. But he says, look, the president of Mexico has to deal with Trump.

CARLOS BRAVO: It's very hard - very, very hard - to be president of Mexico with Donald Trump in the White House.

KAHN: He says Lopez Obrador is just doing the best he can. And it appears that the two presidents have grown to respect each other, at least that's what they say publicly. We're going to watch and see.

MARTIN: Franco, let's at least spend a moment talking about the person who's not at this celebration. Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to show up. What's going on?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the official reason is that Justin Trudeau has a scheduled session of parliament. But it is really unusual for a Canadian prime minister to turn down a chance to visit Washington, you know, given the huge economic importance of the relationship. Canadians, though, are annoyed that the United States is, once again, threatening tariffs on Canadian aluminum exports. There's a lot of talk about that as well.

MARTIN: And, Carrie, just as someone who has covered Mexico for so long now and this being the Mexican president's first visit, what are you going to be looking out for today?

KAHN: I'm just really curious to watch and see how they interact, you know. These two men are - as different as they are, they're very similar in character. Lopez Obrador, you know, leans left, and Trump is conservative, but they're both populists, staunch nationalists. They like to publicly criticize the press. And both have strong bases that continue to support them through thick and thin. They've both downplayed the coronavirus pandemic. They don't wear masks in public. So it's going to be curious. We'll see if Lopez Obrador gets to hold his head high like he promised Mexicans he will do on the trip. Or will Trump, you know, once again, show off the U.S.'s upper hand in this relationship? Let's watch and see.

MARTIN: Right, and leverage and power. Speaking of that, I mean, Franco, is this as big a deal for Trump as it is for Lopez Obrador?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he doesn't have the same political risks as Lopez Obrador that Carrie kind of outlined. But these are the kind events where you can't control everything. And, you know, we've seen examples where these things go off the rails, especially if reporters get a chance to ask questions of the two leaders.

MARTIN: All right. We will watch and see. NPR Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn and NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks to you both for your reporting and your context here. We appreciate it.

KAHN: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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