Phone calls are not President Donald Trump's best tool for international charm offensives. He hung up on Australia's prime minister a year ago, nearly changed U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China in another conversation when he was president-elect, and, this week, further offended Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The end result of the Feb. 20 call is that Pena Nieto canceled, for a second time, a planned White House visit. It may also have locked in a win for a far-left presidential candidate in the July 1 Mexican national election—an election in which the Russians are working overtime to actively disrupt and influence.
The president's poor phone etiquette further jeopardizes the already slow progress in the NAFTA renegotiation, adds a new strain to diplomatic relations with a border neighbor, hinders cooperation in combating drug trafficking and makes immigration issues even touchier. And with every notching up of tension with Mexico, the Trump border wall becomes an even harder sell in the nation he insists must underwrite it.
No one says the president needs to play nice with others, especially when he is playing hardball and pushing Mexico to pay full retail for an American-built wall it doesn't want or need. By the same token, no one says that the lame duck Pena Nieto has to kowtow to a border bully. The result? Red-faced leaders who will not, or politically cannot, budge from their tough positions. Civility, too, is threatened.
NAFTA negotiators and each country's diplomats will try to repair the bilateral damage following another failed U.S.-Mexico presidential encounter and postponed visit. But President Trump likely doesn't give a hoot about appeasing a Mexican president he has already used, chewed-up and spit out.
Pena Nieto was first burned by candidate Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That was when the Republican candidate used the Mexico City backdrop and stage to appear like a statesman, leveraging the visit to give the impression of a powerful American leader on a state visit. It was a strong image that left Pena Nieto vulnerable to domestic complaints that he failed to confront Trump and his insistence that Mexico would pay for a border wall.
The humiliation and political turmoil that dogged Pena Nieto following the Trump campaign visit still stings, as the Mexican president remains vulnerable to criticism he is both weak domestically and internationally timid. Pena Nieto's poll numbers were already heading south when theysank to new lows afterTrump won the presidency.
With Trump in the Oval Office, more Mexicans began to view the United States as a near pariah state. The Mexican popular image of Trump's America dropped to a 65 percent "unfavorable" rating, according to a Pew report in 2017. Trump fared even worse. Only five percent of Mexicans have confidence that the U.S. president "will do the right thing regarding world affairs."
Mexican citizens' rekindled and slow-burning anti-Americanism, and their disgust with a generally-perceived corrupt Mexican political class, have created the perfect political conditions for malicious Russian meddling. The July election is moving firmly in the direction of a candidate favored by St. Petersburg trolls and bots, the independent and multiple-time Mexican presidential candidate known as AMLO " Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Fox News refers to Obrador as "the Bernie Sanders of Mexico" for his anti-institutional stance and his populist social and educational reform programs.
Obrador, who has compared Trump to Hitler, is the leader of his own party, the National Regeneration Movement, and Mexicans are ready for change. They hope, too, that his presidential term would curb out-of-control violence and systemic corruption. His political rallies rouse supporters to chant "Si, se puede" ("Yes, we can!") and his numbers are showing him well in the lead " with his popularity growing. H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, says that Russia has helped boost Obrador, while the candidate laughs off the assertion and jokes that he should be called "Andres Manuelovich."
Vladimir Putin's Russia may not do much trade with Mexico, or have a whole lot of cultural crossover, but it currently recognizes how vulnerable Mexico is to disruptive political manipulation. From Moscow's perspective, this is pure opportunism. Mess with neighboring Mexico and you mess with the U.S., plain and simple. Helping turn an election for Obrador, who will also regularly confront the United States and its policies, is geopolitical gold for Putin, who can then drop the mic.
Trump is not likely calling back Pena Nieto anytime soon, but he keeps his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, on speed dial. The government may not trust Kushner with a security clearance, but when Trump plays bad cop, he trusts Ivanka's spouse to be his good cop. Shortly after the confrontational Pena Nieto phone call, Trump asked Kushner to follow-up and smooth things over with Mexico. Kushner's calls are always welcomed by Mexico, where he is considered by current and former U.S. officials to be vulnerable to manipulation, according to a report inThe Washington Post.
Presidential proclamation by thumbed Twitter tantrum is a bad enough way to deliver policy. The unscripted and free-wheeling phone call is now a firm part of the Trump mix of low-tech undiplomatic tools for enraging allies and undermining foreign friends.
The president's communication style is unique, unmanageable, undisciplined, assertive, and comes with unpredictable consequences. In this case, Trump is making sure that the next leader of Mexico will think twice before answering the phone.