How Mexico’s President Beat Donald Trump at His Own Game

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shakes hands with Donald Trump at a news conference in Mexico City on Aug. 31, 2016.

By MO ELLEITHEE – – – – –

Mo Elleithee is executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.  He is a former communications director of the Democratic National Committee, was senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and was a longtime campaign strategist for Sen. Tim Kaine. He is on Twitter: @MoElleithee.

Donald Trump’s meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was supposed to be a pivotal moment for his campaign. His advisers predicted that meeting with a world leader would make Mr. Trump look more presidential and reassure voters nervous about putting him on the global stage. It was a chance for him to publicly honor the United States’ special relationship with its neighbor to the south after months of disparaging Mexicans on the campaign trail and pledging that Mexico would pay for a wall on its border. And it was a chance for Mr. Trump to prove that he could have a productive relationship with a head of state who not long ago had compared his rhetoric to that of Mussolini and Hitler.

In their joint news conference, Mr. Trump’s diplomatic tone surprised and impressed supporters and non-supporters. There was none of his trademark bluster. When asked by a reporter, Mr. Trump acknowledged that they had discussed the wall but not who would pay for it, prompting people to wonder whether he was being more conciliatory in his approach. Feeling pretty good, Mr. Trump flew to Arizona to give a much-awaited speech on his immigration policy.

When he landed, Mr. Trump learned that Mr. Peña Nieto had pulled the rug out from under him–and that he had used only 90 characters to do it.

In a move that could have been straight from Mr. Trump’s unorthodox campaign, Mexico’s president tweeted that he began their private meeting by saying Mexico would never pay for the wall.

That tweet transformed the dynamic of the day. Heading into the candidate’s big speech, Trump campaign surrogates were forced to spend time responding to the tweet. For many Trump skeptics, the tweet erased his moment as a conciliatory diplomat and reinforced the notion that he was a novice out of his depth. For Trump supporters, they not only didn’t see their candidate stand up to Mexico’s president: They saw him get played by Mexico’s president.

Mr. Trump didn’t help matters with his address. If there was any sense that he would (as his campaign advisers had said) adopt a softer tone, his remarks in Phoenix put that to bed. And his Twitter exchanges with the Mexican president about the wall over the next day further undermined the image of a productive meeting.

There is far greater potential upside for Mr. Peña Nieto. Mired in abysmal approval ratings, he was strongly criticized by many of his constituents for inviting Mr. Trump to Mexico. Some argue that the president waited too long to speak out and that the impact of his comments would have been much stronger had he delivered them while standing on stage with Mr. Trump. Even if he was several hours late, however, Mr. Peña Nieto can now say to his constituents that he invited Donald Trump to Mexico and the first thing he did was look the American in the eye and stand up to him. Given how disliked Mr. Trump is in that country, that has potential to be a powerful talking point–one that Mr. Peña Nieto has aggressively delivered in interviews and an op-ed ever since sending his tweet.

Throughout this campaign, Mr. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to change an entire media narrative with a well-timed tweet. Mr. Peña Nieto appears to have been paying attention.

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