From the moment Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced plans for his first state visit to the United States, where he would meet with President Donald Trump at the White House, the news was greeted with a mixture of revulsion and astonishment. At home and abroad, critics and observers marveled at a decision to undertake a diplomatic mission so rife with potential to cause damage to Mexico and such negligible upside. The lone voices of support maintained that the lopsided odds belied the finely honed political instincts of AMLO, as Mexico’s president is widely known.
Dismissing his critics, the populist leader Tuesday took his seat in coach on a commercial flight to Atlanta, where he changed planes on the way to Washington, as critics cringed at the repercussions of his gamble. Only Trump is all but assured to benefit from the jaunt. Most everyone else has been left wondering why on Earth AMLO chose to meet with an American president who has made a political punching bag of Mexico, at this charged moment, with less than four months left until Election Day in the United States.
The last time a Mexican president took a similar gambit, it ended in disaster. It was 2016 and Trump, then a presidential candidate, was punctuating his campaign with ugly attacks against Mexico and Mexicans, referring to some of the people trying to cross the border as rapists, murderers and drug dealers. Then-President Enrique Pena Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City to clear the air. The visit was a triumph for Trump and a disaster for his Mexican counterpart, providing the candidate with a new opportunity to highlight his racist claims and leaving the Mexican leader looking weak and the country humiliated. The meeting was deemed a “monumental failure” in Mexico, creating a grave political crisis for Pena Nieto, who fired his finance minister, the man who had engineered Trump’s visit.