On Wednesday, journalist Dolia Estevez reported that during a brief, blunt phone call the previous Friday, US President Donald Trump threatened and cajoled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
According to Estevez, who cited “confidential information” obtained from sources on both sides of the call, Trump disparaged Mexico and Mexicans, threatened to levy taxes on Mexican imports, and went so far as to hint at sending US troops to confront drug traffickers who, Trump said, Mexico’s military had been incapable of stopping.
The incendiary comments attracted instant attention, both for their vitriol and for their verisimilitude, as Trump frequently inveighed against Mexico throughout his campaign and has kept up his harsh rhetoric during the first days of his administration.
Estevez’s report also characterised Peña Nieto’s response as “stammering.” Much of the Mexican public has been frustrated with Peña Nieto’s response to Trump’s attacks, and the Mexican president has seen his approval rating fall to 12% in recent weeks.
Estevez described Trump as threatening Mexico with a 35% tax “on those exports that hurt Mexico the most” and referred to White House spokesman Sean Spicer restating the 35% tax idea after the call.
However, while Trump has mentioned a 35% tariff on exports from US companies in Mexico, the most commonly floated number is a 20% tax on Mexican goods entering the US. The White House lists no press briefing by Spicer on January 27, the day of the call.
Hours after Estevez’s report surfaced, a report from The Associated Press corroborated some of the content of the conversation, but downplayed the tone.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump told Peña Nieto, according to an excerpt seen by the AP. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
But, the AP said, the excerpt did not make clear who Trump was referring to as “bad hombres,” nor did it make evident the tone or context of Trump’s remark. Moreover, the excerpt did not include Peña Nieto’s response.
The Mexican government also issued a statement around the same time totally rejecting Estevez’s report.
“[It’s] necessary to clarify that the publication is based in absolute falsities and with evident ill intention,” Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Twitter.
“During the call, President Peña Nieto was clear and emphatic in signalling the differences of position in respect to some statements made by President Trump in public and which he repeated during their dialogue,” the ministry said, adding:
“You assert that you obtained information from confidential sources from ‘both sides of the border.'”
“Only [Peña Nieto] and the foreign minister participated in that call and neither of them remember knowing you or having spoken with you ever. Whoever has been your confidential source on this side of the border, lied to you.”
Eduardo Sanchez, Mexico’s presidential office spokesman, said the conversation was respectful, not hostile or humiliating, as described by Estevez.
“It is absolutely false that President Trump has threatened to send troops to the border,” he said during a Wednesday-night interview with Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola.
The White House also disputed the account of a contentious call between Trump and Peña Nieto.
“The White House tells me POTUS did not threaten to invade Mexico,” Andrew Beatty, the AFP’s White House correspondent, tweeted a little before 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Jim Acosta, CNN’s senior White House correspondent, also tweeted a comment he attributed to a White House official: “Reports that the President threatened to invade Mexico are false. Even the Mexican government is disputing these reports.”
A more in-depth report from CNN published Wednesday night cited a transcript of the call that differed from the text published by the AP:
“You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with. We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.”
A source told CNN that the AP’s report was based on a readout of the conversation between Trump and Peña Nieto written by aides, not on a transcript.
In a further qualification, the White House characterised Trump’s “bad hombres” remark as “lighthearted” to the AP in a story published on Thursday morning.
The White House said the comments were “part of a discussion about how the United States and Mexico could work collaboratively to combat drug cartels and other criminal elements, and make the border more secure.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the AP the conversation was “pleasant and constructive.”
While both sides has downplayed the content of the conversation and dismissed the reportedly hostile tone, the exact nature of the phone call is still unclear, and may remain so until a full transcript or audio (which the Mexican government traditionally does not record) is revealed.
In any case, Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders during his first two weeks as president have been concerning for observers, both at home and abroad.
“(Trump’s) interactions are naive in that he keeps suggesting we will have the best relationship ever with a broad departure of countries, but there is no substance to back it up,” a government official with knowledge of Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders told CNN.
“Source familiar with Trump foreign leader calls says the POTUS convos are turning faces ‘white’ inside the” White House, Acosta tweeted late on Wednesday.
“When he encounters a policy challenge, like with Turnbull, he responds with a tantrum,” the official told CNN, referring to a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
During that call, Trump bragged about his election victory and said Australia was going to send the US “the next Boston bombers” as part of an Obama-approved deal to taken in refugees held by Australia, which he criticised.
Descriptions of Trump’s calls are at odds with “sanitised” White House accounts, The Washington Post, which first reported the nature of the Turnbull call, said of Trump’s discussions with foreign leaders, adding:
“The characterizations provide insight into Trump’s temperament and approach to the diplomatic requirements of his job as the nation’s chief executive, a role in which he continues to employ both the uncompromising negotiating tactics he honed as a real estate developer and the bombastic style he exhibited as a reality television personality.”
The contentious nature of the Trump’s call with the Australian leader was especially troubling, in light of the longstanding and close-knit ties Washington and Canberra have developed over decades.
While the call with Mexico’s president appears to be less sensational that initially reported, that correction will likely do little to sooth the nerves of Mexicans and people of Mexican descent in Mexico and in the US.
Trump has made not indication of backing off his pledge to construct a border wall — Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has said the wall could be completed in two years, and Kelly is already travelling to the border area to study plans for the wall’s construction.
Moreover, Mexicans appear to have been caught up in the “extreme vetting” Trump has targeted at citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.
“We have reports of Mexicans who have been held for more than 12 hours … We have a case of a family who were held for more than 10 hours and we’re looking into that,” Marcelino Miranda, consul for legal affairs at Mexico’s consulate in Chicago, said on Tuesday,
Miranda said he believed stringent questioning faced by those Mexicans had nothing to do with the newly intensified vetting process, though others from the country likely see it as part of a broader hostility to the US’s southern neighbour.
Trump “wants to make an example of Mexico to show how he will deal with countries around the world,” Maria Eugenia Valdes, a political scientist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico, told journalist Ioan Grillo.
“This man is capable of anything,” she added.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it, just don’t worry about it,” Trump said during a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning.
“We’re going to straighten it out,” Trump added. “That’s what I do. I fix things.”
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