Donald Trump's Wednesday meeting with the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, could add legitimacy to Trump's White House bid — or end up a total fiasco.
What Trump could gain
One of Trump's biggest selling points is positioning himself as a grand negotiator, a dealmaker who can sit across from anyone at any table and get what he wants. Whether or not that's true, the mere fact that he's scored this meeting at all is something of a get for the Republican presidential nominee.
Trump's business dealings have taken him all over the world, but he's got plenty of catching up to do in the diplomacy department. In facing off against Hillary Clinton, Trump isn't up against just any former secretary of state: As the nation's top diplomat, she famously traveled to more countries than any of her predecessors. Meeting with presidents and princes was standard fare for her. A meeting with Peña Nieto is a small step toward elevating him to the world stage beyond his pre-existing celebrity.
As the Washington Post noted:
The invitation is a stunning move by Peña Nieto, given the grief that Trump's campaign has caused the Mexican government over the past year. From calling Mexican illegal immigrants rapists and criminals, to vowing to build a wall along the Southern border, to threatening to undo the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump has caused growing alarm in Mexico.
Trump's tough talk on immigration was a smash hit with GOP primary voters. But the primary is long over. If he really plans to not just win the election but also run the country — and polling shows Clinton ahead in the horserace — he has to be responsible for shaping how the rest of the world sees the U.S., and he has to be taken seriously. That has to go beyond his arguably risky rhetorical flirtations with figures like Russia's Vladimir Putin.
How it could all go awry
Put plainly, Trump could blow this meeting. Aside from the potential logistical and security issues, the hastily scheduled summit is already stirring up both mockery and outrage from everybody from the folks in the peanut gallery to the pundit class to the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. The latter, who's called Trump out in no uncertain terms about not paying for "that fucking wall," on Wednesday said America's southern neighbor won't be played by Trump for political gain.
Peña Nieto may have invited Trump to talk, but that doesn't mean he's going to play nice. The GOP nominee has insulted Mexico on numerous occasions, and it could be seen as practically a dereliction of the Mexican leader's duty to his country if he didn't dress Trump down for those remarks. Peña Nieto himself is having problems in the popularity department, so letting Trump have it could be to his political benefit. Team Trump may be playing this meeting as a show of statesmanship, but he could end up getting scolded like a schoolboy by a sitting president while protesters literally or figuratively burn him in effigy outside.
Trump's visit could end up overshadowing, muddying or even derailing his big Wednesday night speech on immigration. While Trump has left behind his traveling press corps, his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said he would take media questions. Given his blazing rhetoric, those questions are sure to be pointed. Trump is already getting beaten up for waffling on immigration; if he gets thrown off track again by Peña Nieto or the press or both, that just fuels the "chaos candidate" narrative that's dogged him throughout the campaign.