Standing in front of both nations’ flags, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Donald Trump, smiling for the cameras and shaking hands before sitting down to sign a new North American trade agreement.
But the visit wasn’t in the East Room of the White House. Peña Nieto didn’t get Trump to himself. (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there.) And it wasn’t an official state visit.
In fact, Peña Nieto is the first Mexican president in more than half a century not to be honored with a state visit to the United States - reflecting how far relations have fallen between the United States and America’s most important bilateral partner.
Some diplomats feel the slight — by both presidents Barack Obama and Trump — could cause lasting damage to the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, said the long-time tradition showed that both sides recognized the importance of the partnership between neighbors, and regardless of the political challenges, they could put those differences aside when necessary.
“It’s the equivalent of having a block party,” Guajardo said. “You might have some difficult times. But you know you’re going to continue to see each other and need to maintain good contact. And when you stop that, there can be a rupture in the relationship.”
Mexico is the U.S.’s third-largest trading partner with $557.6 billion in goods traded between the two nations last year. The relationship is also critical on security and migration issues.
“No other country has as many connections to the United States as Mexico and so much at stake,” said Michael Shifter, who as president of the Inter-American Dialogue has deep ties with many Western Hemisphere leaders. “If the relationship goes off course, it has significant consequences.”
The Trump administration insisted that the United States and Mexico maintained a strong partnership and pointed to comments made by Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray earlier this year that the Mexican government was closer with the Trump administration than previous administrations.
“President Trump and President Nieto have enjoyed a good working relationship proven by the recently signed historic (United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement) and through the extensive bilateral cooperation to counter illicit narcotics trafficking.” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.
Officials also pointed to Trump thanking Peña Nieto for spending his last day in office with them so they could sign the agreement and describing how the three leaders had become great friends after a worthy battle.
“He’s a special man,” Trump said of Peña Nieto. “And he’s really done a good job, and we appreciate it very much.”
But Peña Nieto did not receive one of the grandest and most glamorous honors afforded by the White House. He did not receive a special arrival ceremony with a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn. He did not get to stay at the Blair House. He did not receive a state dinner at the White House. And, unlike some of the Mexican presidents before him, he did not get to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
The State Department records indicate Peña Nieto received a state visit on July 22, 2016, but Obama administration officials and the Mexican government say the information is wrong. That visit was strictly a bilateral meeting and a news conference.
At the 2001 state visit by President Vicente Fox, President George W. Bush famously referred to Mexico as “our most important relationship.” Less than 15 years later, Trump launched his presidential campaign attacking Mexico and accusing its leaders of sending “criminals and rapists” across the border.
In August 2016, Peña Nieto invited candidate Trump to Mexico City for a meeting at the presidential palace looking to smooth relations. But Trump again pledged to build a border wall between the two nations and Trump, even as president, never appeared to stop using Mexico in some of his most aggressive rhetoric.
Trump was supposed to visit Mexico after his election, but Peña Nieto canceled the visit over Trump’s insistence on the wall and having Mexico pay for it.
“It would have been impossible for Trump to offer or Peña Nieto to accept a state dinner, given the tensions in the relationship and the feelings that key blocs of political supporters had in each country,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, who is in frequent contact with Mexican officials.
Trump does not appear to be interested in pomp and pageantry of a state visit. He’s only hosted one with French President Emmanuel Macron in April.
Obama didn’t host Peña Nieto either for a state visit. Peña Nieto, who took office in 2012, was in office for most of Obama’s second term. In Obama’s last two years, the administration hosted seven state dinners, but none for Mexico.
Former Obama officials note that Obama and Pena Nieto weren’t close. Peña Nieto also came under a cloud of suspicion, dealing with allegations of corruption and human rights violations that made a meeting difficult.
Mark Feierstein, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under Obama, notes that Obama hosted a state visit with Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
“It’s not like he dissed Mexico,” Feierstein said. “Mexico did get their state visit and there are very few state visits to go around.”
Feierstein notes that Obama also met with Peña Nieto multiple times in Washington, Mexico and other parts of the world, while they were both in office.
Some of the blame for the tense relationship between the countries could be placed on Peña Nieto, who angered Mexicans by inviting candidate Trump to visit and then granting his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the nations’ highest honor for foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for his assistance renegotiating NAFTA.
“Many Mexicans saw it as another way of bending to the Trump administration,” Antonio Ocaranza, spokesman for the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo.
Ocaranza, who said he didn’t completely agree with public’s criticism of Kushner, said Peña Nieto should have visited the United States on his own. He could have done a better job mobilizing Mexican allies in the business, trade and advocacy communities of the United Statesto help counter the negative narrative promoted by Trump.
“We left that narrative to pervade and to generate an atmosphere where Mexicans in the United States felt persecuted and, obviously had to defend themselves against the narrative of ‘criminals and rapist,’” Ocaranza said. “That was in the atmosphere.”
Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, said he is hopeful that under new leadership, Mexico will be able to address some of the differences between the two nations. He notes that both Trump and the new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have indicated a willingness to work together. But he’s skeptical it’ll work out considering their political differences.
“There are too many issues on the table between the two countries,” Rozental said. “And some of these I think will be exacerbated by the ideological differences, if you like, between a far right populist in the United states and a far left populist in Mexico.”