Pompeo Set to Travel to Mexico for Talks With Country’s President-Elect

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on July 13, 2018. (Credit: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on July 13, 2018. (Credit: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top US officials travel to Mexico Friday for talks with the country’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. It will be the first high-level meeting between the Trump administration and the incoming leader amid heightened tensions between the two neighbors.

Pompeo’s delegation, which will also include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has taken a lead role in US diplomacy with Mexico.

The talks will cover a broad range of issues, including NAFTA negotiations, the opioid crisis, border security and immigration, and trade negotiations.

Pompeo’s trip, sandwiched between a NATO meeting in Brussels and high-level summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, underscores the importance of a relationship that has been battered by almost 18 months of Trump’s anger about the slow pace of building a border wall between the two countries and illegal immigration.

While the President has repeatedly aired his grievances about Mexico to score points with his base, officials beneath him have continued to work quietly to maintain one of the United States’ broadest trade, security and economic relationships.

‘That positive agenda’

The previously scheduled trip was to hold talks with President Enrique Peña Nieto and his foreign minister, Luis Videgaray. But the delegation will also now meet with leftist Lopez Obrador, months before he takes office in December, an overture to forge an early relationship and begin work on a slew of issues important to both sides.

A senior State Department official briefing reporters in a phone call before Pompeo’s visit said the talks seek to build on a July 2 phone call between Lopez Obrador and Trump.

“The whole goal of Secretary Pompeo’s trip is to advance that positive agenda and to work with the Mexican government across all of the issue areas where we can make progress on,” the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, under normal State Department rules.

Mexico’s political transition provides an opportunity to reset US-Mexican ties, which have been strained under Trump and Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto canceled a plan visit to the White House in February after a tense phone call in which Trump demanded Mexico pay for the border wall. And since taking office last year, Trump has threatened to tear up the trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada.

Lopez Obrador takes office December 1. His election last week, with a whopping 53% of the vote, gives him a strong mandate for change. While he has criticized the United States in the past, he pledged throughout his campaign to seek productive, mutually respectful relations with Washington and to support the successful renegotiation of NAFTA.

Trump and Lopez Obrador, both considered populists and political outsiders, appear to be making an early effort to get along. Following his call with Trump after his landslide victory, Lopez Obrador said he proposed possible initiatives to Trump that could help lessen migration and bolster security, including possible US economic investment in Mexico.

“I received a call from Donald Trump and we talked for a half hour,” he said in a tweet last Monday. “I proposed to him exploring a comprehensive agreement: development projects which would generate employment in Mexico and with it reduce migration and improve security. There was a respectful treatment and our representatives will hold discussions.”

The president-elect has since described the call as friendly and said Trump did not bring up the idea of the controversial border wall. He said he plans to invite Trump to his inauguration, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

‘A situation of trade disputes’

The US wants a safe third country agreement with Mexico, as it has with Canada. Such an agreement would require asylum seekers to stay in Mexico, effectively preventing them from being allowed to seek refuge in the US. Mexican authorities have been reluctant to agree to such a deal, which could saddle them with hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Central America and other parts of the world.

The State Department official declined to say how prominently NAFTA negotiations would factor in Friday’s talks, but the presence of Treasury’s Mnuchin during the discussions suggests that getting a deal on NAFTA will be high on the agenda. Talks have stalled over US demands over autos and a phase-out clause for the 1994 pact as well as other issues. A fresh round of talks is expected later this month.

On Thursday, Mnuchin told lawmakers that the administration is prioritizing NAFTA negotiations following Lopez Obrador’s election. He denied that the US is in a trade war with major trading partners, such as Canada and Mexico, despite steel and aluminum tariffs imposed on those countries for reasons of national security concerns.

“I don’t think we’re in a trade war,” he told a House hearing. “We’re in a situation of trade disputes.”

On Wednesday, senators voted overwhelmingly to call on Trump to get congressional approval before using national security as a reason for imposing tariffs on other nations.

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