Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador adopts a conciliatory tone and lavishes praise on Donald Trump at their first meeting despite US president's past disparaging remarks on Mexicans.

Mexico's President Lopez Obrador thanks US President Trump for helping with trade and with medical equipment to treat coronavirus patients.
Mexico's President Lopez Obrador thanks US President Trump for helping with trade and with medical equipment to treat coronavirus patients. (Reuters)

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has held talks with Donald Trump at the White House under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic and the US leader's past disparaging remarks about America's southern neighbour.

Speaking after an Oval Office meeting on Wednesday, Trump hailed the US-Mexico relationship as "outstanding," and Lopez Obrador –– a left-wing populist –– adopted a conciliatory tone.

"The relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been closer than it is right now," said Trump, who ran for president on a pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico to keep out "rapists" and "criminals."

"Each of us was elected on the pledge to fight corruption, return power to the people, and put the interests of our countries first," Trump told Lopez Obrador. 

"I do that and you do that."

Trump showed 'kindness'

Lopez Obrador thanked Trump for his "understanding" and told his US counterpart: "You have not tried to treat us as a colony.

"On the contrary, you have honoured our condition as an independent nation. That's why I'm here: to express to the people of the United States that their president has behaved with us with kindness and respect."

The Mexican leader also thanked Trump for helping with trade and with medical equipment to treat coronavirus patients.

Officially, the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Lopez Obrador was to celebrate the launch of the new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade deal, a modified successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump had branded a killer of working-class US jobs.

READ MORE: Trump treats Iraq with the same disrespect he's shown Mexico

Biden not convinced 

But their bonhomie did not convince Trump's Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.

"Trump launched his 2016 campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. He's spread racism against our Latino community ever since," Biden tweeted.

He called for a return of "dignity and humanity" to the US immigration system.

Odd bromance

Lopez Obrador has shown a pragmatic streak in managing relations with Trump, mindful that even small actions by the giant neighbour can have enormous consequences for his country, especially on the economic front.

Despite coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Trump and Lopez Obrador have also been cooperating in the US leader's efforts to stop Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States as they flee violence.

Lopez Obrador is banking on the new trade agreement to prop up the Mexican economy, which is expected to contract 8.8 percent this year due to Covid-19. The virus has left more than 30,000 dead in Mexico.

Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the two leaders have "really hit it off" and exchanged gift baseball bats during their meeting. 

Trump signed and gave Lopez Obrador a custom Louisville Slugger, and the Mexican president gave the president a bat manufactured by indigenous people in southern Mexico, O’Brien said on Fox Business Network’s "Lou Dobbs Tonight."

The two signed a declaration highlighting US-Mexico relations and the USMCA. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided not to come to Washington to celebrate the agreement, citing scheduling conflicts.

Coronavirus measures

The White House said all members of the Mexican delegation, including Lopez Obrador, were tested for the coronavirus before they met Trump, as was the case when Poland's president visited on June 24.

Mindful of the coronavirus pandemic, which is still surging in Mexico and the United States, the two leaders did not shake hands when Trump greeted Lopez Obrador on his arrival. 

Neither wore face masks.

Trump and Lopez Obrador also pledged to cooperate in responding to the coronavirus, which has rocked both nations. 

Since March 2020, movement across the border has been restricted to essential travel while allowing the flow of goods and services. 

Last year, Mexico became the largest goods trading partner of the United States.

China void

With the US looking to reduce its dependence on China for parts and supplies, Mexico is well-positioned to step into the void, though US businesses have viewed some recent actions taken by the Mexican government as harmful to US investors and say they undermine the framework of the USMCA. 

Lopez Obrador didn't publicly address US business' concerns.

"If there is not a better investment climate for both foreign and domestic private investment, it will be very difficult to use the opportunity of USMCA and the drift between China and the United States to our advantage," Geronimo Gutierrez, who was Mexico’s ambassador to the US in 2017 and 2018, said during a virtual event hosted by the Wilson Center.

Read more: Talks resume as Trump's Mexico tariff deadline looms

With no meetings planned with Biden, Lopez Obrador seemingly is banking that Trump will win a second term. 

The Democratic Party chairman, Tom Perez, recalled Trump's insults of Mexicans and said the president was now trying to take credit for a trade deal that Democrats in Congress helped make possible.

"Latino communities, immigrants, and the American people deserve a president with the empathy and experience to lead us forward, not a demagogue who cheers on bigotry from the White House," Perez said, urging voters to elect Biden.

Immigration policies

Lopez Obrador likes to point out that Trump helped Mexico reach a deal with other oil-producing nations to cut production and aided Mexico in obtaining more ventilators to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Both presidents talk about a blossoming friendship that seems to stem from their pursuit of nationalist agendas.

Many Mexicans, however, remain wary of Trump, whose denunciations are intended to rally his most loyal supporters. 

Trump has threatened tariffs to strong-arm Mexico into playing an uncomfortable role in US immigration policy and insisted that Mexico will pay for a border wall meant to keep migrants out of the US.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wouldn’t get into detail about what the two presidents said about immigration. 

Mexico deployed 27,000 troops to the border to help stem the tide of illegal immigrants from Central America.

Read more: Trump threatens to shut govt for 'years' over wall funding

Source: TRTWorld and agencies