WASHINGTON - A White House official is confirming that President Donald Trump told Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that he might send U.S. troops to deal with "bad hombres down there" if the Mexican military doesn't.
But, the official says the remark was meant to be "lighthearted" and was a reference to cooperation between the countries in fighting drug cartels.
The Associated Press first reported Wednesday that Trump made the comment in an hourlong conversation with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Jan. 27.
"You have a bunch of bad hombres down there," Trump told Pena Nieto, according to an excerpt of the call given to AP. "You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details publicly, said "those comments, while lighthearted, were part of a discussion about how the United States and Mexico could work collaboratively to combat drug cartels and other criminal elements, and make the border more secure."
The official described the conversation as "pleasant and constructive."
The phone call between the leaders was intended to patch things up between the new president and his ally. The two have had a series of public spats over Trump's determination to have Mexico pay for the planned border wall, something Mexico steadfastly refuses to agree to. Before the phone call, Pena Nieto canceled a planned visit to the United States.
The excerpt of the call viewed by AP did not detail who exactly Trump considered "bad hombres," nor did it make clear the tone and context of the remark. It also did not contain Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's response. Mexico denies that Trump's remarks were threatening.
Still, the excerpt offers a rare and striking look at how the new president is conducting diplomacy behind closed doors. Trump's remarks suggest he is using the same tough and blunt talk with world leaders that he used to rally crowds on the campaign trail.
Eduardo Sanchez, spokesman for Mexico's presidential office, denied the tone of the conversation was hostile or humiliating, saying it was respectful.
"It is absolutely false that the president of the United States threatened to send troops to Mexico," Sanchez said in an interview with Radio Formula on Wednesday night.
The Mexican Foreign Relations Department had earlier told The AP: "The negative statements you refer to did not occur during said telephone call. On the contrary, the tone was constructive."
The Mexican website Aristegui Noticias on Tuesday published a similar account of the phone call, based on the reporting of journalist Dolia Estevez. The report described Trump as humiliating Pena Nieto in a confrontational conversation.
The fresh fight with Mexico last week arose over trade as the White House talked of a 20 percent tax on imports from the key U.S. ally to finance the wall after Pena Nieto abruptly scrapped his Jan. 31 trip to Washington.
The U.S. and Mexico conduct some $1.6 billion a day in cross-border trade, and cooperate on everything from migration to anti-drug enforcement to major environmental issues.
Trump tasked his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner — a real estate executive with no foreign policy experience — with managing the ongoing dispute, according to an administration official with knowledge of the call.
At a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May last week, Trump described his call with Pena Nieto as "friendly."
In a statement, the White House said the two leaders acknowledged their "clear and very public differences" and agreed to work through the immigration disagreement as part of broader discussions on the relationship between their countries.