Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and President Donald Trump agreed to stop publicly talking about who would pay for a border wall during a phone call Friday, representatives of both governments said, putting at least a partial lid on a feud that has threatened to rupture one of the world’s biggest bilateral trade relationships.
The Mexican and U.S. governments released joint statements describing the hour-long call “productive and constructive” a day after the two leaders exchanged tweets and Pena Nieto canceled a planned visit to the White House to iron out differences. The statements were almost the same except for one sentence that appeared in the Spanish-language version from Mexico and not in the one from the U.S.: “The presidents also agreed for now to refrain from speaking publicly about this controversial topic.”
The omission of that line from the U.S. statement raised questions about whether Trump and Pena Nieto had different interpretations of their conversation. But hours later Trump’s spokesmen didn’t dispute Mexico’s version.
“I think that is an accurate statement,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “They agreed not to discuss how to pay for it publicly.”
Spicer said that although the U.S. document was labeled as a “joint statement,” they were not intended to be identical. “We write statements that reflect what the president wants to put out,” he said, adding that the Mexican government’s statement similarly reflected their priorities.
The wall has become a delicate subject for both leaders. Trump has had to publicly acknowledge that taxpayer dollars will be used to start construction with the cost, estimated as high as $20 billion, somehow recouped from Mexico later. In that regard, he may view an agreement with Pena Nieto to stop talking about the issue in public as a relief. Pena Nieto has been firm in rejecting the idea that Mexico would pay to erect a wall along almost 2,000 miles of border and has come under increasing domestic political pressure to stand up to Trump.
Trump’s tweets and public statements about the border wall are roiling markets in Mexico and damaging Pena Nieto’s reputation, according to Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.
“Every time Trump mentions the topic he puts Pena Nieto in a bind,” Chabat said. “I think Pena Nieto fears that Trump will say publicly ‘we spoke about it and he told me he will pay,’ and this for Pena Nieto is politically unacceptable.”
The two nations also are embroiled in a dispute over trade and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also includes Canada, on U.S. jobs.
Trump said Friday he and Pena Nieto “had a very good talk” and blamed past U.S. leadership for negotiating trade agreements that give other countries an advantage.
Mexico “out-negotiated us and beat us to a pulp” Trump said at a news conference with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House. “We’re going to be working on a fairer relationship.”
Pena Nieto on Thursday canceled a visit to the White House planned for next week after Trump reinforced his demand, via Twitter, that Mexico pay for a barrier along the U.S. southern border to stem illegal immigration. Mexico’s government has refused.
The clash has depressed the Mexican peso, which is down almost 12 percent against the dollar since the U.S. election on concerns that one of the world’s largest bilateral trade relationships was headed for a break. The currency rebounded Friday afternoon, gaining 1.6 percent to 20.8863 per dollar at the close of trading. The two nations’ economies are so deeply intertwined, especially in the border states, that it might be nearly impossible to pull them apart without serious political or economic unrest.
Pena Nieto was scheduled to take part in talks in Washington next week on Nafta, which Trump has threatened to abandon if he cannot strike a better bargain for U.S. workers. Foreign Relations Minister Luis Videgaray was in Washington Thursday, meeting with Trump administration officials. He told reporters the discussions would continue and that it’s still possible that the two sides can reach “very good agreements.”
Trump and Pena Nieto followed up with their telephone conversation.
“With respect to the payment for the border wall, both presidents acknowledged their clear and very public differences in positions about this sensitive topic, and they agreed to resolve their differences as part of the comprehensive discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship,” the Mexican statement said, adding the word “sensitive” issue rather than merely “this issue” but otherwise tracking the White House statement.