Mexico Prepares for Trump’s Potential Return to Office

They’re studying his interviews, bracing for mass deportations and preparing policy proposals to bring to the negotiating table.

As Mexico heads toward its presidential election next month, government officials and campaign aides are also girding for a different vote: one in the United States that could return Donald Trump to the presidency.

The last time Mr. Trump took office, his win surprised many of America’s allies, and his threat-filled diplomacy forced them to adapt on the go. Now, they have time to anticipate how Mr. Trump’s victory would transform relations that President Biden has tried to normalize — and they’re furiously preparing for an upheaval.

For some, the memory of negotiating with Mr. Trump the last time he was in office, when he used extreme threats against Mexico, looms large.

What it took to reach a deal with Mr. Trump’s team back then? “Time, patience, cold blood,” the former Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said in an interview. “You can win, if you understand this. It’s not easy.”

In Mexico, officials say that working with Mr. Trump could be even harder this time around. The former president has promised “the largest deportation operation in American history,” floated the idea of 100 percent tariffs on Chinese cars made in Mexico and vowed to deploy U.S. Special Forces to, as he put it, “wage war on the cartels.”

Behind the scenes, the Mexican government is talking to people close to the Trump campaign about proposals such as the former president’s threat of a “universal tariff” on all imported goods, and working to resolve trade disagreements before the U.S. election, according to a senior Mexican official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The goal, the official said, is to leave the future Mexican administration as equipped as possible to engage with Mr. Trump.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico forged a close working relationship with Mr. Trump in the early years of his administration, despite Mr. Trump’s repeated threats to impose tariffs on Mexico and make the country pay for a border wall.

But Mr. López Obrador is stepping down once his term ends after presidential elections in June, in which polls give a significant advantage to his protégé, Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City.

The unwritten rules of Mr. López Obrador’s relationship with Mr. Trump were that Mexico did as much as it could on migration, and the White House let him pursue his domestic priorities without meddling. That seemed to work for both men.

The Mexican leader has praised Mr. Trump for respecting Mexican sovereignty. Mr. Trump, in turn, has called the Mexican leader “a friend” and “a great president.”

But it’s unclear how Mr. Trump would engage with either of the top two presidential candidates.

“With either President Trump or President Biden we’re going to have good relations,” Ms. Sheinbaum said in an interview. “We’re always going to defend Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. — and we want an equal relationship.”

Xóchitl Gálvez, the top opposition candidate, said she, too, could work with either man as president.

“Obviously I would prefer to work with a respectful and courteous gentleman like Joe Biden,” Ms. Gálvez told The New York Times. “But in my professional and political life I have dealt with all types of masculinity,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the first time I confronted a character with complicated masculinity, so I could work perfectly well with Trump.”

Campaign aides are drawing up plans for either outcome.

“I’m not worried, but we’re going to be prepared,” said Juan Ramón de la Fuente, a member of Ms. Sheinbaum’s team, referring to a potential Trump win. “We are preparing for both scenarios.”

On migration, “we need to be more effective in decreasing irregular crossings,” said Mr. de la Fuente, who recently served as Mexico’s ambassador to the United Nations and is seen as a potential pick for foreign minister in a possible Sheinbaum administration.

But he also pointed out that American laws work as “a not very healthy incentive” that help drive migration, “because the moment you touch the land, you are a candidate for asylum.”

Some officials in Mexico see the country as having more leverage in its dealings with the United States than in the past. The White House has relied heavily on Mr. López Obrador to slow migration at the U.S. southern border, and that cooperation has given Mexico significant influence over one of the most important issues in American politics.

“In structural terms, Mexico is gaining more power in regard to the United States,” Mr. Ebrard said. The Mexican economy has performed relatively well in recent years, and its factories have become an attractive alternative to China for the United States.

As Mexico, “any administration in the States needs you for their migration policy,” he said. “The geopolitical tension is working in certain ways for a stronger Mexico.”

Mr. Ebrard, who is part of Ms. Sheinbaum’s campaign and seen as a possible cabinet member if she wins, led negotiations with Mr. Trump’s advisers while he was in office.

On trade, “their priority was the labor reform, the increase in the wages in Mexico,” said Mr. Ebrard. That was palatable for Mexico, since the López Obrador administration had campaigned on a leftist platform and was committed to raising Mexican salaries.

On migration, the real ask was much harder to satisfy. Mr. Trump wanted “a dramatic reduction,” in border crossings, Mr. Ebrard said, but didn’t agree with Mexico about investing in ways to tackle the causes that drive people to migrate.

Still, Mexico was able to push the administration to recognize its point of view, he said.

In December 2018, the Trump administration joined an effort led by Mexico and committed billions of dollars in private and public investments to Central America — though months later the former president moved to cut off all aid to the region in response to migrant caravans.

The Mexican government has been criticized for getting too little in return for agreeing to accept tens of thousands of returned asylum seekers under the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy. But the administration also had clear wins, including the renegotiation of the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada.

Ms. Gálvez argued that the government missed an opportunity to secure more rights for undocumented Mexicans in the United States and protect migrants stuck in Mexico, but she also praised the trade deal.

“In that sense, Mexico won, won a lot with Trump,” Ms. Gálvez said, adding that Mr. Trump never actually imposed the tariffs he threatened. “It didn’t turn out so badly.”

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