Standing beside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto Wednesday, Donald Trump took a step back from one of his most frequently repeated campaign promises: that Mexico would pay for the wall he intends to build along the United States' southern border.
"Who pays for the wall? We didn't discuss that," Trump said in Mexico City, shortly after Peña Nieto spoke. Peña Nieto extolled the virtues of NAFTA (a trade deal Trump has frequently criticized), highlighted the fact that immigration from Mexico has actually reached a 10-year low, and scolded Trump for his harsh words about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States.
"Mexicans in the United States are honest, hard-working people. They are people that respect family, they respect the life in the community, and they are respectful of the law. As such, Mexicans deserve everyone's respect," Peña Nieto said. His words served as a rebuke to Trump's characterization that Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are criminals and "rapists."
If Trump picked up on the criticism, he didn't let on, concluding his remarks by saying only, "Mr. President, I want to thank you, it's been a tremendous honor, and I call you a friend." That's quite the contrast from the words Trump used when he kicked off his campaign, saying Mexico is "not our friend, believe me."
At about 10:30 Tuesday night, Trump – who has for the last two years spat out a steady stream of criticisms of Mexico and Mexican immigrants, and promises to build a wall – tweeted, "I have accepted the invitation of President Enrique Pena Nieto, of Mexico, and look very much forward to meeting him tomorrow."
Peña Nieto extended the invitation to both presidential campaigns the previous Friday, reportedly assuming Trump, whom the Mexican president has compared to Hitler and Mussolini, wouldn't take him up on it. But the real-estate mogul called Peña Nieto's bluff, hastily squeezing in the trip (against the advice of the U.S. embassy in Mexico) the same day he's set to deliver his highly anticipated, much-delayed speech on immigration.
A nose for publicity stunts of this magnitude is what made Trump a breakout reality-TV star and, arguably, the Republican nominee for president. But the same attention-seeking streak has kept his campaign embroiled in controversy and his poll numbers mired in the mid-to-high 30s nationwide since late July.
With his trip to Mexico and immigration speech Wednesday, Trump is hoping to turn the tide of popular opinion, officially debuting what's being called a "softened" immigration position.
Trump's 14-month bid for the presidency has in many ways been building to this moment, when Trump is finally forced to reckon with the divisive tone he set in his very first campaign speech.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump said in his announcement speech last June, after famously gliding down the escalator into the Trump Tower lobby. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
The initial backlash to those comments was swift, with Trump losing a number of partnerships and business deals, but he maintained the tough rhetoric and used it to slowly pick off his primary rivals one-by-one, denouncing them as weak on immigration. "Build the wall!" became one of the key refrains heard at Trump rallies.
Trump has said repeatedly that he will compel Mexico to pay for the construction of said wall, threatening to ban bank transfers from the U.S. to Mexico. Trump's website explains, "It's an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year." (An independent report by Bernstein estimates the wall Trump has described would cost between $15 billion and $25 billion.)
Asked in March if there was a scenario under which Mexico would agree to pay for the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, Peña Nieto responded, "There is no scenario."
Two former Mexican presidents have been similarly skeptical, in more colorful terms. Felipe Calderón has said Mexico will not "pay a single cent for such a stupid wall," while Vincente Fox has said Mexico will not pay for "that fucking wall."
In his immigration speech, scheduled for Wednesday evening in Phoenix, Trump will reportedly reiterate his calls for a wall along the southern U.S. border, but will abandon the idea of a "deportation force" to round up undocumented immigrants and return them to their countries of origin.
In recent days, Trump has floated some of the same ideas he excoriated Jeb Bush for supporting in the primary. In a town hall with Fox News, Trump said he would deport "the bad ones," while remaining open to allowing other immigrants the chance to remain in the country legally if they pay back taxes.
Trump's Mexico trip was roundly criticized by Mexicans. Vicente Fox told CNN, "He is not welcome to Mexico. We don't want him. We reject his visit." Fox characterized the visit as a "desperate" ploy by Peña Nieto, whose approval rating stands at 23 percent. As much as Mexicans dislike their president, they revile Trump by far greater margins; only two percent of Mexicans, according to a recent poll, would like to see Trump become U.S. president. Seventy-four percent of Mexicans said they support Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
The Clinton campaign used Trump's trip to remind voters of both the derogatory comments he's made about Mexicans and his campaign promises.
"From the first days of his campaign, Donald Trump has painted Mexicans as 'rapists' and criminals and has promised to deport 16 million people, including children and U.S. citizens," the campaign said in a statement Wednesday. "He has said we should force Mexico to pay for his giant border wall. He has said we should ban remittances to families in Mexico if Mexico doesn't pay up. What ultimately matters is what Donald Trump says to voters in Arizona, not Mexico, and whether he remains committed to the splitting up of families and deportation of millions."