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

President Donald Trump’s meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is being billed as a celebration of economic ties and the new North American trade agreement

WASHINGTON -- 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, on his first foreign trip since he took office a year and a half ago, arrived at the White House after morning stops at the Lincoln Memorial and a statue of Benito Juarez, a former Mexican president and national hero. About 20 U.S. and Mexican businessmen and women, including Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, were to join the presidents for a working dinner.

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.

Mexico is the largest U.S. trading partner in goods, and during the pandemic the two nations worked closely to keep supply chains going so plants in both countries would not have to close because of a lack of parts from the other, officials said.

Also on the agenda was the issue of drug-fighting. Attorney General William Barr visited Mexico in December and January, and Trump has repeatedly offered U.S. help in dealing with cartels.

Mexicans, however, remain 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. Trump flashed a thumb's up as he and a military honor guard greeted Lopez Obrador to the White House and they posed for pictures.

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.