MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday canceled a planned visit to the White House amid outrage in Mexico about President Trump’s efforts to start building a border wall, in what appeared to be one of the most serious rifts in years between Washington and a critical ally.
Trump later asserted that the meeting was called off by mutual agreement and said that under the circumstances, it would have been “fruitless.”
The Mexican president’s move came a day after Trump signed an executive order to construct a border wall, which he has insisted that Mexico fund. Mexican officials have angrily rejected paying for the wall.
Addressing a GOP policy retreat in Philadelphia, Trump said Thursday afternoon, “The president of Mexico and myself have agreed to cancel our planned meeting” next week. “Unless Mexico is going to treat the United States fairly, with respect, such a meeting would be fruitless.”
Trump said that “border security is a serious, serious national issue and problem” that threatens the “sovereignty and safety” of Americans. “The American people will not pay for the wall, and I’ve made that clear to the government of Mexico,” he added. He also blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, vowing that “I will not allow Americans to pay the cost” of the accord.
Earlier, Peña Nieto said in a tweet: “This morning we have informed the White House that I will not attend the work meeting scheduled for next Tuesday with @POTUS.”
Peña Nieto had sent out a recorded message on Wednesday night saying that he “regrets and disapproves” of the U.S. decision to move forward with the wall, but that he still planned to come to Washington next Tuesday to meet with Trump because of the importance of the negotiations.
But that decision changed after a Thursday morning tweet from Trump saying that if Mexico is not willing to pay for the wall, “then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
At the Republican retreat in Philadelphia, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Thursday that they plan to introduce legislation to provide up to $15 billion in U.S. funding for the border wall. (Other, independent estimates of the cost have ranged as high as $25 billion.) But they did not say how the wall would be paid for or how they would keep it from ballooning the deficit, and the plan appeared to be encountering some resistance from Republican lawmakers.
Relations between the United States and Mexico have quickly deteriorated since Trump took power. Trump has proposed several policies that Mexico opposes, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, increased deportations of illegal immigrants, and the construction of the wall.
A border wall was one of Trump’s signature promises and a rallying cry for his supporters during last year’s presidential campaign. Peña Nieto has insisted that Mexico will not pay for the wall, casting the issue as a matter of dignity and principle for the nation. But he has tried to maintain a diplomatic approach to the new administration, suggesting that Mexico can negotiate with its largest trading partner and maintain good relations.
In Mexico, pressure has been mounting on Peña Nieto to respond more forcefully to Trump’s proposals.
Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, seemed to play down the conflict with Mexico, telling reporters that the White House would “look for a date to schedule something in the future.”
“We will keep the lines of communication open,” he said.
Spicer described the U.S.-Mexico relationship as one of “great importance.” On the issue of paying for the wall, he declined to give any further details about how it might happen, but said payment would come from “a variety of potential sources.”
Trump’s decision to issue executive orders to begin construction of the border wall and take other measures against illegal immigration alarmed Mexicans. The timing of the orders was seen as further insult: Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray was flying to Washington on Tuesday when news broke about Trump’s impending border wall announcement.
In his Wednesday night address, Peña Nieto said: “I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue the construction of a wall that for years has divided us, not united us. Mexico does not believe in walls.”
For Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings have sunk to near single digits, this message amounted to an angry denunciation of Trump’s plans. Throughout Trump’s rise, Peña Nieto has been mostly respectful toward him, even inviting him to visit Mexico City as a candidate last August.
Former president Vicente Fox said in an interview before Peña Nieto’s tweet that if the Mexican government “weakens, if they make concessions” and continue with the visit, the government delegation “should not come back to Mexico.”
“Because Mexico’s not going to welcome them, either Peña or Videgaray. Mexican honor is at stake,” he said. “Right now Peña Nieto has to regain his leadership in Mexico. What better way than when we have this menace, this threat, coming from the exterior. It’s the time for President Peña to become the patriotic leader of Mexico that we need at this point in time.”
On Thursday morning, Trump also accused Mexico of taking advantage of U.S. companies and consumers via NAFTA.
Trump tweeted: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers … of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”
Mexico’s finance minister, Jose Antonio Meade, said in a Mexican television interview on Thursday that while the United States does have a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico, “that’s not the same thing as saying that trade is bad.”
Meade added that if the meeting is canceled, it could sow uncertainty in financial markets. The value of Mexico’s currency has fallen sharply since Trump became the Republican Party presidential candidate.
“The most difficult thing to manage is uncertainty,” he said.
Top Republican congressional leaders declined Thursday to wade into the subject of Trump’s relationship with Peña Nieto.
“I don’t have any advice to give to the president about that issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell said Congress intends to address the issue of the wall but that he would leave the president’s interaction with foreign leaders to him.
Asked whether there are any concerns about the relationship with Mexico, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) replied, “I think it’ll be fine.”
Rucker reported from Washington. William Branigin and Jenna Johnson in Washington contributed to this report.