EVERETT, Washington (AP) — Donald Trump will make a quick visit to Mexico on Wednesday, meeting with the president of a nation he derided as the home of rapists and criminals. The trip is a politically risky move for the Republican presidential nominee less than 10 weeks before the election.
It is not clear how Trump will be received in a country where he is widely despised. Beyond his disparaging comments about Mexicans, Trump has promised, if elected, to deport millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally, force Mexico to build a huge wall to secure the nearly 2,000-mile border, and renegotiate the NAFTA trade agreement to make it more favorable to the United States. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has compared Trump to Adolf Hitler.
But it also offers Trump an opportunity to appear more presidential as he makes his first foreign visit since winning the nomination. Polls show him trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in most of the key states that will determine the U.S. election. He is struggling to win over moderate voters, including Republicans, who are turned off by his brash rhetoric and controversial proposals on immigration and other matters. Some former Republican foreign policy officials have warned that Trump is unprepared to lead on the world stage.
The trip will come hours before Trump delivers a highly anticipated immigration speech. It's a defining issue for Trump, but one on which he has appeared to waver. After saying during his primary campaign he would use a "deportation force" to expel all of the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally," Trump has suggested recently he might be open to "softening" his stance.
Last week, Pena Nieto extended invitations to visit Mexico to both Trump and Clinton, who met with him in Mexico in 2014. The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that Trump was considering making the trip to Mexico.
The invitation to Trump puzzled Mexican analysts. It is not clear why Pena-Nieto, who already has low approval ratings, would agree to a meeting that might boost the candidacy of someone so widely disliked by Mexicans. The newspaper El Universal wrote in an editorial that Trump "caught Mexican diplomats off guard" by accepting the invitation.
Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday night to say he looks "very much forward" to meeting with Pena Nieto. The Mexican leader's office confirmed the meeting with its own tweet, saying the two men would meet privately.
Pena Nieto has been sharply critical of Trump's immigration policies, particularly the Republican's plans to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. In a March interview, Pena Nieto said that "there is no scenario" under which Mexico would do so and compared Trump's language to that of dictators Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Former Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have also alluded to Hitler in describing the Republican nominee.
Pena Nieto cast a different tone late Tuesday, tweeting, "I believe in dialogue to promote Mexico's interests in the world and, principally, to protect Mexicans wherever they are."
Clinton's campaign has urged voters to not "be fooled" by what it calls Trump's attempts to disguise his immigration policies. "What ultimately matters is what Donald Trump says to voters in Arizona, not Mexico, and whether he remains committed to the splitting up of families and deportation of millions," said campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
While Trump's visit came as a surprise, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a close Trump adviser, has been among those pushing Trump to make the trip, according to a person familiar with their conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss them publicly. Christie made his own successful trip to Mexico City in September 2014 and has a warm relationship with the Mexican president.
On NBC's "Today," Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was asked if Trump would change his rhetoric in his meeting with Pena Nieto. She said, "I think you'll see a very presidential Donald Trump."
Asked if Trump planned to stand by his campaign position of forcing out people living in the U.S. illegally, she said, "He's made very clear that he hasn't changed his position at all when it comes to enforcing the law." She declined to say what Trump might offer in his speech, except to say he'll repeat his opposition to amnesty, his commitment to building a wall along the U .S. Southern border and his plan to revoke President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration.
In meetings recently with Hispanic supporters, Trump had suggested he could be open to allowing some people living in the country illegally to stay. After one such roundtable this month, Conway, said Trump's stance on using a deportation force to expel people was "to be determined."
In the days since, Trump and his staff have broadcast varied and conflicting messages — though on Wednesday Conway, appeared to make clear that Trump had decided against allowing immigrants in the U.S. illegally to stay.
Trump has spent much of his campaign railing against the U.S.'s trade imbalance with Mexico and other countries and promising that, if he's elected president, he will punish companies that try to move jobs overseas. During his announcement speech, Trump accused Mexico of sending its rapists and criminals across the border, and vowed to build a giant wall to stop them, along with the flow of illegal drugs.