An explosive new story about Trump’s talks with Peña Nieto shows how fraught US-Mexico relations are now

Things look different from here.
Things look different from here.
Image: Reuters/Henry Romero
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This time two weeks ago, the notion that a US president would threaten to send federal troops into Mexico would have been laughed off as nonsense on both sides of the border. But in a sign of how much Donald Trump has distorted perceptions of the US-Mexico relationship in the short time since he took office, a story reporting just such a thing is generating a big dose of buzz.

The story, written by Mexican journalist Dolia Estévez, was published online Feb. 1 by a little-known, regional outlet called Proyecto Puente (link in Spanish). It said that the one-hour telephone conversation Trump had with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto on Jan. 27 was far less cordial than characterized by the two governments. In fact, it was downright hostile, according to Estévez, who attributed her information to confidential sources from both countries.

She reports that Trump allegedly told Peña Nieto that the US does not need Mexico, and that he chided him for doing a poor job controlling drug trafficking—even suggesting that he might deploy American troops to defeat the drug cartels on Mexican territory. “He was emphatic in affirming that he won’t allow Mexican drugs to continue ‘massacring’ our cities and communities,” wrote Estévez.

The report describes a stammering Peña Nieto responding that Mexico’s position was that the countries should continue fostering a constructive relationship.

Estévez told Quartz that she had nothing to say beyond what was already published.

A spokesman for Trump called the report “completely false.” He pointed to the statement issued by the White House the day of the call, which described it as “productive and constructive.” Hours later, Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry issued a statement saying the story was based on “absolute falsehoods.”

“These are moments in which the country needs true information, and above all, well-founded,” complained the agency’s communications director.

The story already had traveled widely by then. After Estévez was interviewed by popular radio host Carmen Aristegui, her explosive account was picked up by other publications, including Proceso, a well-respected political magazine (all links in Spanish). Business Insider reported on it on the US side, and its take was republished by others.

Then the Associated Press weighed in, with a report that seems to back up the bulk of Estévez’s account. According to AP:

President Donald Trump threatened in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart to send U.S. troops to stop “bad hombres down there” unless the Mexican military does more to control them, according to an excerpt of a transcript of the conversation obtained by The Associated Press.

The AP did not name its source, describing the person who provided the excerpt only as someone “with access to the official transcript of the phone call” who “gave it on condition of anonymity.” But the excerpt, AP said, “did not detail who exactly Trump considered ‘bad hombres,’ nor did it make clear the tone and context of the remark,” and it did not contain Peña Nieto’s response.

Whether the reports are true, false, or somewhere in between, the incident offers a glimpse at how baffling the world could get under Trump—and how quickly. The new US president’s strident declarations against Mexico, whether he means them or not, have made what was implausible before suddenly seem likely—a certainty, even—for many Mexicans. And his administration’s detachment from facts in his first few days in office puts into question all of its subsequent statements. How credible is its dismissal of Estévez’s report after White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the truth and peddled falsehoods about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration?

Perhaps the most troubling fallout of this strange new Trumpian era is how the thick haze of confusion can start shaping reality—in Mexico’s case, the very concrete reality of a decades-long, fruitful relationship with the US. Peña Nieto was meant to travel to Washington for an in-person meeting with Trump, but he canceled the trip after the US president baited him on Twitter and insisted Mexico must pay for the wall the US now intends to build along its southern border. Their conversation would be held on the phone instead.

Trump’s call with Peña Nieto may or may not have played out the way Estévez and AP have described it, but what is undeniable is that Mexicans’ goodwill toward the US is rapidly eroding. A January poll (Spanish) by BGC-Excélsior quantifies with hard numbers by how much.

That adds very real pressure to Peña Nieto’s increasingly challenging task of managing Mexico’s relationship with the US under Trump.