Trump Touts Ties to Mexico in Meeting Over New Trade Pact

President Donald Trump cited cooperation with Mexico on trade, immigration and combating drug-trafficking as he hosted Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for the first foreign trip of his presidency.

“The relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been closer than it is right now,” Trump said Wednesday as the two leaders met at the White House. “We’re taking this relationship to new heights.”

Lopez Obrador said the U.S. has treated Mexico with dignity, though he also made note of the leaders’ ideological differences and said there had been a robust debate in Mexico about whether he should attend the White House meeting.

The meeting between the two heads of state was set to celebrate the finalization of a pact updating the North American Free Trade Agreement, but comes as both leaders are grappling with questions over their approach to a coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage in their countries.

Trump earlier Wednesday said he would urge the Centers for Disease Control to water down protocols for reopening schools, the latest instance of the U.S. president — who hopes to see an economic recovery before November’s election — brushing aside cautions from public health officials.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — the third signatory of the free trade pact — declined the invitation to visit Washington, citing the pandemic. And Lopez Obrador — who donned a face mask as he flew coach to Washington on a pair of crowded commercial airline flights — has come under fire from opposition leaders for making the trip four months before the U.S. general election.

Members of both delegations were to undergo coronavirus tests before the day’s events, which included a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office and a working dinner with top business leaders from both countries later Wednesday. The Mexican guests attending include billionaires Carlos Slim Helu, the country’s richest billionaire, and Ricardo Salinas Pliego, its second wealthiest man.

Also on the guest list are Grupo Financiero Banorte Chairman Carlos Hank Gonzalez and Grupo Televisa co-chief executive officer Bernardo Gomez.

The meeting caps an unlikely rapport by two figures of very dissimilar political backgrounds. At first sight, the 66-year leftist AMLO, who cut his political teeth as an activist for the rights of indigenous peoples in Southern Mexico, has little in common with Trump. He likes to cultivate his ‘man of the people’ image, shunning symbols of wealth and traveling around the country without much security.

The dinner underscores the political calculus for Lopez Obrador, who decided to push forward with the meeting despite concern among some of his top advisers who are worried the visit could backfire if Trump loses his re-election bid in November. But the Mexican president has made clear that he prioritizes maintaining the commercial relationship with the U.S., worth over $600 billion last year.

U.S. officials said the two leaders were likely to discuss cooperation on immigration issues and counter narcotics – two central planks of Trump’s re-election campaign – as well as maintaining the flow of goods across the border despite the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. may also raise concerns over efforts by Lopez Obrador’s government to alter rules governing the energy industry in Mexico, which has drawn objection from some U.S. companies.

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