Trump to Peña Nieto: border wall not so important – just don’t say you won’t pay

Report reveals leaked transcripts of phone call between US and Mexican presidents, in which Trump begs Peña Nieto not to tell press he won’t pay for wall.

Donald Trump dismissed the importance of a border wall, his signature campaign issue, in a phone conversation with the president of Mexico.

“From an economic issue, it is the least important thing we were talking about, but psychologically, it means something,” Trump told Enrique Peña Nieto on 27 January in the call. A White House transcript of the call was published by the Washington Post on Thursday.

The Post also published a transcript of Trump’s call on 28 January with Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, in which he tried to wriggle out of an Obama-era deal to resettle refugees currently held on the island of Nauru.

Much of the conversation with Peña Nieto focused on Trump’s acknowledgment that Mexico would not pay for the wall – as he had repeatedly told supporters it would – and his need for Peña Nieto not to say so. The Mexican president had cancelled a planned visit to Washington over the issue.

Trump said: “The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to.”

Referring to the Mexican president’s insistence that he would not pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. 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.”

Trump even threatened to cut off relations with Peña Nieto. “Because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall,” he said. “From a political standpoint, that is what we will say.

“We cannot say that any more because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys any more because I cannot live with that.”

In Mexico, where Trump is reviled and Peña Nieto has been criticised for failing to fight a bully, the release of the transcript led some pundits to say that strategy of deference was not working.

“What this transcript shows is that Trump views the US-Mexico relationship like it’s employer-employee,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the magazine Nexos. “Mexico must do what he says in order to keep its job.

“The threat from the first phone call seems to have worked. Peña’s defiance of Trump always out of earshot of the American president. He’s never there when Peña says Mexico won’t pay.”

Others saw the issue differently. “This is a boost for Peña’s image in Mexico,” said José Carreño, a columnist and commentator on foreign affairs. “All of a sudden he looks a lot stronger. But it is less about Peña than about Trump. Trump comes across less a bully than a politician who realizes he has gone too far in promises and is trying to find a way out without losing face.”

Peña Nieto has passed up repeated opportunities to publicly tell Trump Mexico will not pay for the wall. During a joint appearance last August at the presidential palace in Mexico City, he stood passively as Trump said details would be discussed at a later date. Peña Nieto had the last word. He did not rebut Trump.

At the G-20 summit in Hamburg last month, Trump again voiced approval for having Mexico pay. Peña Nieto said nothing. Foreign minister Luis Videgaray later told a Mexico City radio station neither he nor the president had heard Trump’s comments.

Videgaray – who proposed the Trump campaign trip to Mexico – became foreign minister in January. It was believed that he and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had a strong relationship that could be leveraged.

Trump recognised that relationship in the White House call, telling Peña Nieto: “I did not want to meet with anybody. It was only because of a very good relationship that Jared Kushner has with Luis that these two decided to meet and discuss, but I was not really in favour for that meeting.”

Some in Mexico interpreted Peña Nieto’s passivity as an attempt to avoid unduly angering Trump over the impending renegotiation of Nafa, the key trade accord between Canada, the US and Mexico. Talks start this month.

In the transcript published by the Post, Trump also offered military aid to deal with drug cartels, an offer – or perhaps veiled threat – first reported in February.

“You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with, and we are willing to help you with that big-league,” he said.

He added, of the fight against organized crime: “Listen, I know how tough these guys are – our military will knock them out like you never thought of. We will work to help you knock them out because your country does not want that.”

Trump also dwelled on his immigration promises in his conversation with Turnbull.

“This is going to kill me,” he said to Turnbull. “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.”

He added: “This deal will make me look terrible.”