USA

Pandemic looms over Trump trade day with Mexican president

During the Rose Garden ceremony, Trump praised the deal and said he would speak to Trudeau later in the day.

“We’ll have a separate day with Canada coming down at the appropriate time,” he said.

Yet even as he basked in the victory of his trade deal, the president struggled to escape the worsening domestic pandemic, going apparently off script to advocate “safely reopening our schools” as many colleges announce plans to continue partial or complete virtual learning this fall.

“We want the schools to be open and going in the fall,” he groused. “We’re finding out that learning by computer is not as good as learning on the campus.”

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement officially went into force on July 1, replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement that had governed commerce between the three nations since 1994. The president signed the U.S. side of the deal in January after a protracted fight in Congress that ended with House Democrats securing a number of changes to the deal. Mexico approved it last year and Canada’s Parliament greenlighted it this spring.

For López Obrador, a left-leaning populist elected as a rejection of Mexico’s establishment, the visit was a chance to reassure an investment community rattled by his election and decisions to cancel major infrastructure projects, such as a partially completed airport. And it will give both sides a chance to discuss a “long term solution” to immigration, administration officials told the Washington Examiner.

The White House said López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, and his delegation were all tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival at the White House.

The Mexican president has been criticized for being slow in his response to the pandemic, and the two countries have grappled with how long to extend travel restrictions across their shared border. He, like Trump, did not wear a protective mask during the ceremony.

López Obrador profusely praised the historic relationship of the countries as well as the new pact, which includes strengthened protections for Mexican workers and stricter rules for how North American cars and auto parts qualify for reduced tariffs between the nations. He welcomed President Trump’s relatively hands-off approach to diplomacy, which he said never “sought to impose anything on us that violated our sovereignty.”

“You have not tried to treat us as a colony,” he said. “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 USMCA is Trump’s biggest trade achievement, fulfilling his longtime promise to rip up the original NAFTA, which he long called the “worst trade deal ever.” However, the new deal is not expected to significantly increase trade in the region because the original NAFTA already eliminated most tariffs between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The USMCA would raise U.S. GDP by $68.2 billion, or 0.35 percent, by the sixth year after it enters into force, according to the independent U.S. International Trade Commission. It would also create 176,000 U.S. jobs, increasing employment 0.12 percent by the sixth year, the ITC found.

The visit was López Obrador’s first to Washington and first out of Mexico since taking office in December 2018, demonstrating the Mexican leader’s preference to focus on domestic issues over foreign policy.

Mexican leaders typically fly into Andrews Air Force Base. But López Obrador has made a habit of shunning private plane service and even tried to sell his government’s ritzy presidential jet this year. He arrived on Tuesday night via a commercial flight to Dulles Airport.

The visit itself was controversial, with more than a dozen Hispanic Caucus Democrats labeling it a “blatant attempt to politicize the important U.S.-Mexico relationship” and calling for Trump to cancel. But three years after comparing Trump’s comments about Mexicans to Nazi language, López Obrador forged ahead with the trip, eager to show support for a deal that the Mexican Senate approved 107-1 last December.

After arriving in Washington, López Obrador laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial and at a memorial for Mexican President Benito Pablo Juárez García, who had a close relationship with Lincoln. He then headed to the White House for a series of one-on-one conversations with Trump and expanded discussions between the two nations’ policymakers.

Trump will host the Mexican president and his delegation for a “working dinner” in the evening that is expected to be the largest indoor gathering at the White House since the beginning of the pandemic.

Belying his populist reputation, López Obrador brought some of Mexico’s wealthiest business giants to Washington with him, including telecom tycoon Carlos Slim, the world’s fifth richest man, and a group of media, industry and tourism executives.

The indoor dinner with the Mexican delegation and American business executives will number about 50 guests, all of whom will be tested for Covid-19, according to the White House. After that, López Obrador is scheduled to depart at 8 a.m. Thursday from Reagan National Airport, again flying commercial back to Mexico City, with a layover in Miami.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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