Mexico's President Pena Nieto haunted by backlash over Trump visit even after Finance Minister resigns

US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City on Aug 31.
US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City on Aug 31. PHOTO: REUTERS

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Billionaire Donald Trump may have visited Mexico for only a few hours, but President Enrique Pena Nieto is still feeling political pain from last week's ridiculed meeting with the White House hopeful.

Public anger over the trip continues to flare even after felling Mr Pena Nieto's close confidant Luis Videgaray, who stepped down on Wednesday (Sept 7) as finance minister following reports he orchestrated the sit-down with the Republican candidate who referred to Mexican migrants as "rapists".

Adding insult to injury, Mr Trump later bragged during a televised forum that Mr Videgaray's resignation proved his lightning visit on Aug 31 was a success.

"I let them know where the United States stands," said Mr Trump, who has angered Mexicans by demanding that the government pay for a border wall.

"And if you look what happened, the aftermath today, people that arranged the trip in Mexico have been forced out of government. That's how well we did," he said, before tweeting on Thursday that Mr Videgaray was a "brilliant finance minister".


"The Cabinet change was a recognition that the visit was a disaster," political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo said. "Otherwise they wouldn't have changed President Pena Nieto's right-hand man."

The controversial meeting is dogging a president whose approval ratings have plummeted, with the economy underperforming, drug violence claiming more lives every day and a report last month that he had plagiarised parts of his law school thesis.

The government "commits mistake after mistake after mistake and doesn't consult people who know about these things, so they invite someone (Trump) at a completely inadequate time", said Mr Jesus Velasco, a specialist on US-Mexico relations at Tarleton State University in Texas.

Mr Pena Nieto came under fire for not being hard on Mr Trump during a joint news conference and failing to challenge him when the New York billionaire said they had not discussed the wall during their meeting.

It was only later that Mr Pena Nieto said he had privately told Mr Trump that he would not pay for the barrier.

Mr Carlos Marin, editorial director-general of the Grupo Milenio media outlet, put it this way when he interviewed Mr Pena Nieto this week: "This miserable man vomited in your house."

Mr Pena Nieto defended the get-together saying it was important to open a dialogue with someone who could be the next US president instead of confronting Mr Trump with "insults" that "would make me very popular here in Mexico".

That decision has clearly not helped his popularity, with a survey by pollsters Mitofsky showing that 88 per cent of Mexicans were not pleased with the meeting.

Acknowledging the "very heated rhetoric" that often occurs in US elections, US Ambassador Roberta Jacobson said "there may be rough times ahead for each country" but "in the end we get back to business".

"So I tend to not 'catastrophise' even some of the things that are happening in this election," she said at a forum in Mexico City.

But analysts said Mr Trump's visit could hurt Mexico's relations with the next US president, whether Mr Trump or Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who declined Mr Pena Nieto's invitation to visit Mexico.

Mr Pena Nieto gave Mr Trump a platform to look presidential just as Mrs Clinton was seeking to paint him as unfit for office.

"Whoever wins (the US election), the relationship, at least with Pena Nieto until there's a new (Mexican) president, will already be cooler than it should have been before Trump's visit," Mr Crespo said.

But Mr Christopher Wilson of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Centre think-tank said the meeting could end up useful if Mr Trump wins - despite their discord over what they said at their meeting.

"They got to know each other and it opened lines of communication and that's probably a good thing," he said.

"If Hillary Clinton wins, maybe this is a bit of stain on what she would hope to be a strong relationship from the get-go," he added.

"But at the same time, you'd be dealing with Hillary Clinton, who is someone who understands the importance of a strong relationship with Mexico."

Although the scandal is hurting Mr Pena Nieto, Mr Wilson said, ultimately, what matters to Mexicans is "kitchen table" issues such as the economy, public security and fighting corruption. 

"His record on those, both for good and for bad, will be the most important part of his legacy."