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Why Trump? Why now? At the back of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s giant shuttle to the United States

This is the first time Mexico’s President has left the country since taking office in December of 2018. The fact that he’s headed to the White House speaks volumes, both practically and symbolically. Both leaders are looking for victories beyond their losing battles with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump said last month that López Obrador was “a really great guy,” and López Obrador said he was going to Washington, DC, “to thank Trump for his support and solidarity.” They still have plenty to disagree over, but there also seems to be a lot of common ground — not the least of which could be their similar governing styles as two populists who’ve built political brands on a cult of personality.

Their meeting centers on the USMCA, a deal that passed after months of difficult negotiations.

The timing of the meeting amid the rampant spread of the coronavirus in both countries has questioned by critics. But for two men who’ve seen their approval ratings consistently drop during the outbreak, the meeting presents an opportunity to talk about something else.

“Right now, neither is getting high marks for their handling of the health crisis, making the visit a welcome distraction,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

The USMCA’s implementation represents one of the biggest foreign policy wins of the Trump administration — and arguably one of the only major examples of the President creating new, lasting agreements with foreign countries rather than tearing up existing ones.

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Trump will promote this deal as a win and a follow-through on a 2016 campaign promise to rework previous free trade deals, even as Democrats say the only reason they voted to pass the USMCA is because they overhauled the original framework during negotiations.

“López Obrador’s visit will allow [Trump] to showcase how he has bent Mexico to his will by reminding voters that this is a ‘very good deal’ for the US while signaling his achievements at strong-arming Mexico on immigration policies,” said Gladys McCormick, an expert on US-Mexico affairs at Syracuse University.

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Meanwhile, López Obrador has also staked a lot of political capital in the USMCA and likely wants to make sure the Trump administration is invested in ironing out any issues that arise during its implementation.

Mexico’s economy was sputtering even before the pandemic hit. Now, with the IMF predicting a 10.5% GDP contraction in 2020 and his party facing critical midterm elections next summer, shoring up Mexico’s most important economic relationship is probably top of mind for López Obrador.

“Almost 85%of all [Mexican] exports go to the [United States], which is obviously a huge number,” said Larry Rubin, president of the American Society of Mexico. “Mexico is highly dependent on trade with the United States.”

“Mexico will benefit more by sending very clear and positive messages that if investors want to come and invest in Mexico, their investment will be protected,” Rubin said.

A calculated strategy for AMLO

Critics of the Mexican President have urged him not to travel to the White House, saying it follows a trend of AMLO wilting in the face of Trump’s economic bullying and racist rhetoric.

Consider that in 2019, when Trump expressed anger over the flow of Central American migrants traveling to the US border through Mexico, he threatened tariffs on Mexican imports if Mexico didn’t crack down.

López Obrador quickly complied. He deployed Mexico’s National Guard, a newly created force supposedly dedicated to fighting Mexico’s horrific levels of violence, to the northern and southern borders, significantly slowing migrant flows.

Critics have said that while Trump’s vaunted border wall hasn’t actually been built or paid for by Mexico as Trump promised, AMLO’s National Guard deployment essentially did just that.

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AMLO also signed onto the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, under which the Trump administration forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their paperwork is processed, exposing them to dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities where levels of violence are sky high.

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AMLO has also largely refrained from criticizing the provocative language sometimes used by Trump and his supporters when describing people crossing from Mexico into the United States.

“How do you stop these people?” Trump asked of immigrants at a May 2019 rally in Florida. When an audience member shouted, “Shoot them!” Trump smiled and said, “Only in the [Florida] Panhandle can you get away with a statement like that.” The exchange continues to be referenced in Mexican political commentary today.

AMLO agreed to step up his country’s immigration enforcement just a few weeks later.

“We Mexican democrats will not forget Mr. López Obrador’s reverence to the man who has maligned us,” wrote Mexican historian Enrique Krauze this week in a New York Times op-ed.

But López Obrador’s approach to the United States is a calculated one. Next to nothing should get in the way of Mexico capitalizing on its relationship with the world’s largest economic power. Some might call it appeasement. Others call it smart.

“If we have a good relationship with the US, we will avoid bad treatments, and we’ve accomplished this,” he said in his daily press conference on Monday. “My critics say, ‘How am I going to the US if they have offended the Mexicans?’I want to tell the people of my country that since we took office, there’s been a respectful relationship, not only to the Mexican government but also to the Mexicans.”

“Notwithstanding some of President Trump’s derogatory remarks about Mexico and Mexicans, President López Obrador is placing Mexican national interest first and conducting himself like a statesman,” said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Whatever the strategy, it has led to the US President taking a kind view of López Obrador, with Trump even tweeting in June of 2019, “Mexico is doing a far better job than the Democrats on the border. Thank you Mexico!”

Two sides of the same coin?

And although the two presidents come from very different political backgrounds — Trump the right-wing former television star, AMLO the decades-long politician, self-declared leftist and former mayor of Mexico City — experts note they have very similar approaches to governing.

“Both presidents are populists and economic nationalists,” said Wilson. “Both came to power on a message of empowering the disenchanted and disaffected. Both see institutions and bureaucracy as unnecessary checks on their power and obstacles in their direct relationship with voters.”

And the presidents have taken a remarkably similar track in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Both presidents downplayed the initial threat. Trump promised back in February it would just disappear while AMLO famously held up two amulets and said, while smiling, that they would “protect” him from the virus.

They also routinely ignore public health experts’ advice to socially distance and wear masks in public, and neither man is in favor of mass testing.

Most crucially, Trump and AMLO are both aggressively pushing for their economies to reopen. So perhaps it’s no surprise that, of all the reasons to meet, they would find time this week to tout a new economic deal.

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