In a phone call on 27 January Trump described his signature campaign issue as the “the least important thing we are talking about,” while adding “politically [it] might be the most important.” The US president said Peña Nieto’s refusal to pay for the wall had left the White House boxed in politically. When asked by the press about the issue, Trump said both of them should deflect.
“So what I would like to recommend is – if we are going to have continued dialogue – we will work out the wall,” Trump said. “They are going to say, “who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?” to both of us, and we should both say, ‘we will work it out.’ It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, “we will not pay” and me saying, “we will not pay.”
Peña Nieto agreed that talking about the wall was unproductive.
“This is what I suggest, Mr. President,” Peña Nieto said. “Let us stop talking about the wall. I have recognised the right of any government to protect its borders as it deems necessary and convenient. But my position has been and will continue to be very firm saying that Mexico cannot pay for that wall.”
“But you cannot say that to the press,” Trump shot back. “The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that. You cannot say that to the press because I cannot negotiate under those circumstances.”
He assured Peña Nieto that he could defuse the conflict over the wall if the two leaders could stop lavishing the conflict with media attention.
Trump noted he knows “how to build very inexpensively,” which he implied would calm disputes in the United States over the proposal’s high cost at a time when illegal immigration has plummeted to the lowest levels in decades.
Remaining silent on the issue for now would give Trump more negotiating room, he said, leaving the question unanswered of how he intended to pay a border wall expansion that is already winding its way through Congress at the U.S. taxpayers’ expense. Backing off from the proposal would break a major campaign promise that many observers view as politically unfeasible in Mexico.
Trump insisted, however, that he wanted to impose higher tariffs on Mexican goods, intimating that he might use creative accounting to convince his supporters that Mexican companies who export to the United States will ultimately pay for the added barrier miles.
“I felt that we should do a much simpler solution, and that solution was tariffs at the border, because the United States has a trade deficit with Mexico of $60 billion,” Trump said. “And the United States will not have those deficits anymore.”
Former White House spokesman Sean Spicer discussed the possibility of taxing Mexican imports as one way to pay for the proposed wall expansion the day the phone conversation with Peña Nieto took place.
Despite the Mexican president’s diplomatic tone, Trump anticipated retaliation. “Mexico may in turn try to do something like that to us,” Trump said, referring to tariffs, according to the transcript. “Since we have such a deficit, it gives us the advantage. In addition, I was going to very strongly say this to Mexico and other countries – that everything is reciprocal. So if Mexico adds a tax, we will add a tax.”
The transcript published by The Washington Post confirmed a statement from the Mexican presidency issued immediately after the call that said the two presidents had agreed to stop talking about the wall.
The 27 January conversation occurred the day after a tense standoff between the two leaders, when Peña Nieto abruptly canceled a planned state visit to the US in response to Trump’s executive order to expand the barrier at the Mexican border.
“Mexico offers and demands respect, as a the sovereign Nation that we are,” Peña Nieto tweeted at the time.
The White House and the Mexican presidency issued a joint statement after the call, describing the talk as productive and smoothing over the tensions fanned by Trump on the campaign trail and the fallout over his executive order to expand the border wall.
The Mexican version of the statement included a line saying that the two presidents “agreed for now not to speak publicly about this controversial topic.” The White House version, which was otherwise identical but written in English, did not include that sentence.
This story originally appeared on HuffPost.