All eyes on Trump today.
It’s a day when he is set to give his big immigration speech, which should help to clarify his muddled position. He used to be for the wall and mass deportation, but in the past few days, he’s hinted at NOT mass deporting 11 million “illegals” (as he calls them) — which is impossible anyway. He has suggested touchback provisions (they leave and then come right back, except we leave the “bad ones” out) or something else… everything has been suggested except what the majority of Americans are in favor of… a path to citizenship (or amnesty). His on-TV surrogates insist — with no credibility — that Trump is not changing from his hardline position, even as he indicates that he is indeed softening. The whole thing is an exercise in ambiguity, just enough to satisfy his base but also appear to appease people with Trumpian doubts.
That speech is tonight.
But the BIG news — one that his advisers are saying is a potential “gamechanger” — is Trump’s visit to Mexico today. This was prepared within the last 24 hours. President Peña Nieto of Mexico had invited both campaigns to visit. Trump took up the offer.
I, along with many others, consider this to be high risk, high reward. And to be honest, I’m not sure what is going on. Trump and Nieto will meet privately and talk. Both will say something about their meeting…. and…. that’s it?
What do is a “win” here for Trump? Unless he comes back with a check for $200 billion earmarked for “the wall”, I don’t see what he has to gain. Maybe some in the Trump campaign thinks it raises his stature, particularly on a day when he is giving a speech on immigration. I don’t see how though. Trump has been bashing Mexico for over a year. I mean, here’s the statement that literally launched Trump’s campaign — 218 words into his first speech:
“When Mexico sends their people … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump later added:
“What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”
So, it seems, visiting Mexico would lower his stature if you believe in Trump.
Maybe the Trump campaign thinks it is like a “Nixon goes to China” thing. Except Trump isn’t Nixon and Mexico is (unlike China in the 1970s) an ally and trade partner. And Trump’s advisers are certainly no Kissingers. But Trump DOES think Mexico is the enemy.
When will the U.S. stop sending $’s to our enemies, i.e. Mexico and others.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2014
It’s just hard to see what Trump gets out of this.
More importantly, you have to wonder about Nieto’s motives. He probably didn’t think it would work out this way. He invited both candidates; he expected only Clinton would respond (if anybody). That plan backfired — that’s my guess.
Still, is is happening. Nieto is very unpopular in Mexico. Polling at 23% favorability, he is in the midst of a plagiarism and corruption scandal. Meeting with Trump, who is also hated by Mexicans for obvious reasons, seems to be a stupid move, UNLESS Nieto has something up his sleeve. Peña Nieto has every reason to play the tough guy and earn Trump’s wrath. Everyone in Mexico hates Trump, so standing up to him, or even embarrassing him, would be a political win.
But the same might be true of Trump. His base would certainly go wild at the prospect of Trump having a beef with the president of Mexico. The last thing they want is a cordial get together that suggests some kind of future rapprochement. And if Trump plays it right, a meeting that could be spun as an insult to America might even help him with swing voters.
Then again, maybe Trump desperately wants Peña Nieto’s respect, and wants this meeting to demonstrate that he’s not just a bomb thrower who can’t be trusted with international relations.
Because the whole endeavor is fraught with unpredictability, Josh Marshall has what seems like the most sensible take — “Can Trump Be This Stupid? Not A Trick Question”:
… It’s a general rule of politics not to enter into unpredictable situations or cede control of an event or happening to someone who wants to hurt you. President Nieto definitely does not want Donald Trump to become President. He probably assumes he won’t become president, simply by reading the polls. President Nieto is himself quite unpopular at the moment. But no one is more unpopular than Donald Trump. Trump is reviled. Toadying to Trump would be extremely bad politics; standing up to him, good politics…
Remember that the central force of Trump’s political brand is dominance politics. Trump commands, people obey. Trump strikes, victims suffer. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage anything like this in the Mexican capital. He comes with a weak hand, no leverage and the look of a loser. All Peña Nieto needs to say is no.
Again, when you’re in a campaign under constant scrutiny you do your best to control every situation, reduce the risk of unpredictable, embarrassing or damaging events. You try not to cede control to others. You especially try not to cede near total control to someone who has every interest in the world in harming you. The maximal version of that ‘big thing you’re not supposed to do’ is precisely what it looks like Trump is doing.
Trump’s Razor helps here. It’s tempting to assume that there’s some angle Trump has here, some plan or understanding with Peña Nieto to make this not as silly a decision as it appears to be. I’m tempted because how could they think this was a good idea? Trump’s Razor tells us to resist this temptation. “The stupidest scenario possible that can be reconciled with the available facts.” I think that’s what we have here. It’s as stupid as it looks. Who knows? Maybe Trump will handle this deftly and it’ll be a huge success. But Trump’s Razor has yet to fail me. So I’m going to stick with it.
It is hard to know what Trump’s thinking is, or if there is any thinking at all. [UPDATE: He is apparently not bringing along his press corps, which is both unprecedented and unusual for a presidential candidate going abroad. Makes the whole trip even stranger]
If I were Peña Nieto, I would meet Trump at the airport, and with the Mexican press pool there, hand Trump one of his Mexico-made Trump shirts, shake his hand, and walk away.
In the meantime, we need to build that wall to keep Trump down there.
Anyway, you look at it — Trump wins this news cycle… perhaps he will wish otherwise.
UPDATE: Conservative fan fiction
You know, if @realDonaldTrump comes back from Mexico tomorrow with a big check from Mexico to pay for the wall…that’s game, set, match.
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) August 31, 2016
Tweet from former Mexican ambassador to China:
— Jorge Guajardo (@jorge_guajardo) August 31, 2016
UPDATE #2: Viewing the outrage in Mexico about this meeting, Josh Marshall is having additional thoughts.
It would be one thing if Pena Nieto had some grand and tightly organized plan to humiliate Trump. But the evidence of the last 24 hours suggests he’s winging it perhaps every bit as much as Trump himself. Having two clumsy political actors together on the same literal and figurative stage in a highly volatile situation is not one geared to good outcomes. It seems to me like you have a good chance that neither player has much of any idea what he’s doing, and Pena Nieto is already under the gun because of the furious reaction to the news that started last night.
This confrontation of panic, confusion and poor planning is magnified by a less noted factor. Organizing a foreign trip for a President or would-be president is a highly complicated affair, especially when you figure in security needs. It never gets done on a day’s notice. We’re now hearing that the US Embassy in Mexico City strongly counseled against the idea. Those folks tend to be quite apolitical and logistics focused. We can’t rule out the possibility that Trump’s entourage shows up at the wrong palace or isn’t able to make it back to Arizona in time for the speech.
Also, Trump is not bringing the press along.
I think, at the end of the day, the actual visit might just turn out to be a big nothingburger. We won’t know what happened or what was said, allowing both Peña Nieto and Trump to spin what happened today (and its purpose) to each’s political advantage: messages that will be crushed in the next news cycle.