Trump, Lopez Obrador visit is about trade, but politics too

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WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump’s meeting with Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico on Wednesday was billed as a celebration of economic ties and the new North American trade agreement, but critics in Mexico worry their leader is being used a political pawn to bolster Trump’s reelection effort.

Lopez Obrador began his first foreign trip as president with stops at the Lincoln Memorial and a statue of Benito Juarez, a former Mexican president and national hero. Substantive talks were to begin in the afternoon at the White House, followed by a working dinner that was also to include business leaders.

The leaders planned to discuss the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal, which took effect July 1. It replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was blamed for prompting U.S. companies to shift manufacturing to Mexico. The visit could give Trump an opening to bash his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, for voting for NAFTA when he was a senator..

Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said López Obrador and Trump intended to sign a joint declaration of friendship and cooperation. Kudlow said the trade deal would benefit automobile and other manufacturing, agriculture and dairy farmers and cattle ranchers.

“It’s like it gets no respect, OK,” Kudlow said on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.”

He said as the three countries put the terms in place, there will be a burst of entrepreneurship and new innovation.

“I don’t know why people don’t pay more attention to it,” Kudlow lamented. “You know, we’re looking for growth following the pandemic.”

A former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, questioned the timing of the visit and Mexico’s decision not to meet with Democrats. In a letter to Trump last week, a dozen Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced the meeting with Mexico’s president as an effort to distract voters from rising cases of coronavirus in the United States and said it was a “blatant attempt” to politicize relations between the allies.

Jacobson, ambassador from 2016 to 2018, said she sees no important reasons for Lopez Obrador to make the trip. Canada’s prime minister and Trump rival, Justin Trudeau, decided not to come to Washington celebrate the agreement, citing scheduling conflicts.

She also noted that Democrats, whose support was needed to pass the agreement, were not invited to the White House when the deal was signed.

Jacobson expected López Obrador, who is known as AMLO, to hear that he needs to improve the investment climate in Mexico, because without it, the deal alone will not pull his economy out of its recession.

With the U.S. looking to reduce its supply chain in China, Mexico is well-positioned to step into the void, senior administration officials told reporters on a call outlining the visit. Cooperation between the two countries allowed the flow of goods to continue across the U.S.-Mexico border despite shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the White House.

Mexicans are wary of Trump, who has repeatedly taken shots at Mexico and Mexican migrants to rally his most loyal supporters. Trump has threatened crippling tariffs to strong-arm Mexico into playing an uncomfortable role in U.S. immigration policy and insisted they will pay for a border wall meant to keep migrants out of the U.S.

But López Obrador has avoided fights with Trump and the two have a surprisingly warm relationship despite coming from different ends of the political spectrum.

Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist, likes to point out that Trump helped Mexico reach a deal with other oil-producing nations to cut production and aided Mexico in obtaining more ventilators to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. Both presidents talk about a blossoming friendship that seems to stem from their pursuit of nationalist agendas.

If Trump were to win a second term, López Obrador could be calculating he would have a friend for the remaining four years of his administration. If a Democrat were to take the White House, the Mexican leader would trust that the new president would respect the importance of the bilateral relationship and not hold a grudge.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.

FILE – In this Dec. 10. 2019 file photo, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during an event to sign an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement, at the National Palace in Mexico City. Mexico celebrated on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, the implementation of the new free trade agreement with Canada and the United States that it hopes will lead to more investment in its struggling economy. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
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