Pena Nieto considered making the trip to Washington to discuss the much-touted border wall with Donald Trump, but a heated private phone conversation between the two leaders was enough for the Mexican president to cancel his plans.
The discussion reached a boiling point after Trump refused to publicly affirm Mexico's stance of funding for the construction of the nation-dividing wall.
A White House official confirmed with CNN that Nieto was planning the trip around February or March, but the visit ended up being "postponed" after the "tense" phone call that took place on Feburary 20.
COMING UP ON @GMA: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto cancels meeting with Pres. Trump after border wall order https://t.co/rQnlIJmZ42— ABC News (@ABC News)1485518100.0
Nieto and Trump were at a standstill after neither backed down during the nearly hour-long phone conversation, according to the Washington Post.
The former Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, said the dispute over the payment for the wall is jeopardizing the relationship between the two leaders.
The problem is that President Trump has painted himself, President Peña Nieto and the bilateral relationship into a corner. Even from the get-go, the idea of Mexico paying for the wall was never going to fly. His relationship with Mexico isn't strategically driven. It's not even business; it's personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that's a huge problem. It could end up with the U.S. asking itself, 'Who lost Mexico?' "
In addition to the strained relationship between the two countries, the cancelled bilateral meeting could have a negative impact on negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement and other issues.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray believes the Mexico-U.S. ties are closer than ever under the Trump administration. "I think in many ways the relationship today is more fluid," Videgaray said in Mexico City earlier this month.
It's closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people, but that's a fact of life.
However, a Mexican official disclosed to the Post that Trump "lost his temper" over the phone call. The president was described as "frustrated and exasperated, saying Trump believed it was unreasonable for Peña Nieto to expect him to back off his crowd-pleasing campaign promise of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall."
@WSJ @EnyapKPhoenix3 I'm going to guess without reading the story first. Trump said some inflammatory bullshit in… https://t.co/IOQXoIMzm3— CommonCause (@CommonCause)1519534921.0
With the upcoming Mexican presidential elections in July, Nieto's responses to Trump over the border wall have been under scrutiny, causing a national backlash in Mexico. The cancellation of the trip would elevate leftist nationalist Andrés Manuel López Obrador's footing in the polls.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue told the Wall Street Journal:
It would be completely humiliating for Mr. Peña Nieto to show and agree that Mexico will pay for the wall. No self-respecting Mexican president would do it.
Shifter added that Obrador "has much more of a nationalist message which will resonate more with this tension over building the wall."
This wasn't the first time Trump and Nieto locked heads over the wall debate. Shortly after Trump's inauguration in January 2017, Nieto publicly canceled his visit to Washington over the same border wall debate. In response, Trump charged that Mexico was responsible for illegal immigrants, criminals and the trade deficit.
@WSJ Damn, I can’t even tell any more if news stories are new are just old shit being posted again.— Joe Flach (@Joe Flach)1519534494.0
After much pressure from his country last year, the Mexican president took on a more authoritative voice over the controversy.
Esta mañana hemos informado a la Casa Blanca que no asistiré a la reunión de trabajo programada para el próximo martes con el @POTUS.— Enrique Peña Nieto (@Enrique Peña Nieto)1485449319.0
Nieto expressed his disapproval for the offensive wall in a video message last year, saying, "I regret and condemn the United States' decision to continue with the construction of a wall that, for years now, far from uniting us, divides us."
Un mensaje para todos los mexicanos: https://t.co/EFcNh7fQtm— Enrique Peña Nieto (@Enrique Peña Nieto)1485398468.0
In a leaked transcript from their January 27, 2017 conversation on the phone Trump told Nieto:
The fact is, we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall. I have to. I have been talking about it for a two-year period. . . . If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that.
A White House official claimed the Tuesday phone call was "less hostile" than the same one that took place last year with the same, non-productive, results.
Another U.S.official said Trump sent his senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner to call back the Mexican president to "discuss ways to keep moving forward on other issues."
We've already been here before. And with no compromises in the works, the canceled meeting is no surprise.
Mexican president cancels meeting with Trump. Because pissing off our friends is now official US foreign policy. https://t.co/mUYgB7XaSU— Nick Paleologos (@Nick Paleologos)1519607032.0