If Donald Trump becomes president, the U.S. will build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, according to Trump. The GOP presidential nominee says it all the time. “Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” is the most consistent plank of Trump’s entire platform.
When he got the chance to talk to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday, though, Trump said they didn’t discuss payment for the structure ― a claim Peña Nieto and his spokesman later disputed.
“Who pays for the wall, we didn’t discuss,” Trump told reporters after the meeting in Mexico City. “We did discuss the wall, we did not discuss payment of the wall. That’ll be for a later date.”
But after the private meeting, a spokesman for the Mexican president contradicted Trump, telling Reuters that the topic did come up.
“What the president said is that Mexico, as he has said on several occasions ... will not pay for that wall,” spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said. Peña Nieto himself tweeted later that he began the meeting with Trump by saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall.
Trump’s campaign sought to downplay the contradiction.
“Today was the first part of the discussion and a relationship builder between Mr. Trump and President Peña Nieto,” the campaign said in a statement. “It was not a negotiation, and that would have been inappropriate. It is unsurprising that they hold two different views on this issue, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”
Trump’s meeting with Peña Nieto came after more than a year of the GOP nominee denigrating Mexican people, the Mexican government and Americans of Mexican descent. The session had the potential to be tense ― Peña Nieto has said in the past there is “no way” Mexico will pay for the wall, and many Mexican citizens were outraged that Trump was invited to the country. (Peña Nieto said he has invited Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to visit Mexico as well.)
Instead, Peña Nieto described the meeting as “open and constructive,” gently highlighting differences with Trump. Appearing far more subdued than normal, Trump professed his love for Mexican-Americans and his “so many friends” who come from Mexico.
“I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican-Americans,” Trump said. “Not only in terms of friendships, but in terms of the tremendous numbers that I employ in the United States, and they are amazing people, amazing people. I have many friends, so many friends, and so many friends coming to Mexico and in Mexico. I am proud to say how many people I employ.”
Peña Nieto didn’t openly challenge Trump when the American said they didn’t discuss payment for the wall.
Back in the U.S., Democrats reacted to news that the Mexican leader rejected paying for the wall by declaring that Trump, who brags about his negotiating skills, “got rolled” and lied to cover it up.
“Trump has boasted for months that he is going to get Mexico to pay for his ridiculous wall, but when he came face to face with the Mexican president he got out maneuvered and then tried to cover it up on worldwide TV,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mark Paustenbach said in a statement. “Simply put, Donald got rolled.”
Trump’s move toward Mexico was a sharp turnaround from someone who launched his campaign with a speech painting Mexican immigrants broadly as “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” to the U.S. And it’s likely Trump will turn back around and resume his tough talk later Wednesday, when he outlines his deportation-heavy immigration plans in a speech in Phoenix.
Even Trump’s pledges of strength were mild as he stood next to Peña Nieto.
“A lot of the things I said are very strong, but we have to be strong, we have to say what’s happening,” Trump said. “There is crime, as you know, there is a lot of crime and there’s a lot of problems, but I think together we will solve those problems.”
He said the countries can work together to end unauthorized immigration, create secure borders, update the NAFTA trade deal and block drug cartels. He emphasized the need to keep jobs in the hemisphere, not just in the U.S. even though he often talks on the campaign trail about U.S. companies moving factories to Mexico.
Peña Nieto faced pressure from both the Mexico City legislature and political figures across the spectrum to demand that Trump apologize for his string of insults. Peña Nieto, however, expressed openness to working together, though his remarks also amounted to a subtle rebuke of Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric.
“We can disagree on certain issues,” Peña Nieto said. He emphasized his view that NAFTA ― a frequent punching bag for Trump ― had benefitted both countries. He described the U.S.-Mexico border as “a mutual opportunity.” And he pointed out that illegal immigration from Mexico peaked a decade ago. Today, more Mexican migrants are returning to their country than are moving to the United States.
In a veiled allusion to Trump’s repeated insults, Peña Nieto said the two countries should work together “as true friends, good friends and strategic allies, always on the basis of mutual respect.”
Peña Nieto brought up respect again when discussing Mexican people who live in the U.S., who have been frequent targets of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
“Mexican nationals in the United States are honest people, working people,” Peña Nieto said. “They are people of goodwill that respect family, they respect life in the community, and they are respective of the law. As such, Mexicans deserve everybody’s respect.”
Trump appeared to get the message. Though he announced no major policy shifts, he didn’t repeat his description of Mexico as “not our friend,” and said he had “tremendous respect” for Peña Nieto.
“A strong, prosperous and vibrant Mexico is in the best interests of the United States,” Trump said. Turning to Peña Nieto, he added: “I call you a friend.”
This article has been updated to include comments from Peña Nieto and his spokesman that the Mexican president told Trump his country wouldn’t pay for a wall.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.