MEXICO CITY — After 14 months of hype and insults, the stage was set for a binational showdown in Mexico City when Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto took to their podiums and squared off in front of the cameras and millions of viewers across North America.
But what happened instead looked more like a meeting between two grownups who seemed to have more in common than anyone would have expected.
Concerns that The Donald was coming to Mexico to bully Peña Nieto on his home turf dissolved immediately Wednesday afternoon when a somewhat sedated and uncharacteristically soft-spoken Trump called for bipartisan cooperation, expressed his admiration for Mexicans and Latinos, and even referred to the Mexican president as his friend.
If you've been asleep for the past 14 months and just woke up in front of your TV, you'd think a perfectly reasonable man with a mild fondness for Mexico was running for president of the United States on the Republican ticket.
Peña Nieto, who in recent weeks has compared Trump to former Axis fascists, was also on his best presidential behavior.
“We should always remain open to discuss what has worked and what has not,” said President Peña Nieto in his opening remarks. “How we can improve things on both sides of the border, how we can clarify and overcome misunderstandings and get to know each other better.”
Peña Nieto said that “in that spirit” he invited both U.S. presidential candidates to visit Mexico to “talk constructively about the shared future” of both nations.
Peña Nieto then went on to highlight what’s at stake.
“We share the most transited border in the world through which over a million people and four thousand vehicles cross legally every day. Trade between our countries exceeds $500 billion a year. We innovate and produce together, and when it comes to national security matters, daily cooperation between our governments is increasingly important to face the challenges of a complex world.”
The Mexican president called his private meeting with Trump “open and constructive” and said the purpose of the last-minute talks was to get to know each other, exchange points of view on the border, immigration, the drug war and even discuss The North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump has vowed to break or re-negotiate if elected.
“Our country buys more [goods] from the U.S. than it does from Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Japan and the UK combined,” said Peña Nieto. “Many jobs in the U.S. manufacturing industry did not go to other regions in the world, precisely because together we developed a competitive manufacturing platform in the North American region. On average 40% of the content of Mexican exports is made in the U.S. As partners, we must work together to avoid job sources leave our region.”
“However, this doesn’t mean the North American Free Trade Agreement cannot be improved,” Peña Nieto added. “To benefit both sides.”
"The government of Mexico will be absolutely respectful of the electoral process in the United States,” the Mexican president assured reporters before concluding his speech and reiterating that his job entailed protecting Mexican citizens in their country and abroad.
“It is a great honor to be invited by you Mr. President,” Trump said in his opening remarks.
“I was straightforward in presenting my views about the impacts of current trade and immigration policies on the United States. As you know I love the United States very much and we want to make sure that the people of the United States are very well protected. You equally expressed your feelings and your love for Mexico,” Trump said, reading his speech and moderating his voice.
Trump echoed some of Peña Nieto's talking points.
“We are united by our support for democracy, a great love for our people and the contributions of millions of Mexican Americans to the United States. And I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican Americans, not only in terms of friendship but in terms of the tremendous numbers that I employ in the United States and they are amazing people, amazing people.”
“First, second and third generation Mexicans are just beyond reproach,” Trump continued. “Spectacular, spectacular, hard-working people. I have so great respect for them and their strong values of family, faith and community.”
Trump then went on to talk about the dangers posed by human smugglers, the flow of illegal cash and weapons across the border and drug traffickers that “prey on innocent people.”
He then outlined shared goals that according to him would increase “prosperity and happiness” in both countries: ending illegal immigration (including that from Central and South America as well as other regions), having a secure border and respecting the right of a country to build a physical wall, dismantling drug cartels and ending the movement of illegal drugs, weapons and funds across the border, improving NAFTA and keeping manufacturing wealth in our hemisphere.
“The bond between our two countries is deep and sincere and both our nations benefit from a close and honest relationship between our two governments. A strong, prosperous and vibrant Mexico is in the best interest of the United States, and will keep and help keep for a long, long period of time, America together,” he said.
“Mr. President, it’s been a tremendous honor and I call you a friend,” Trump said concluding his speech.
During a brief question-and-answer session Trump said the two men had talked about the border wall, but didn't discuss who would pay for it.