One of President Donald Trump’s first White House phone calls with a foreign head of state after taking office was with Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, in which he berated him over public comments about who would pay for his proposed border wall, according to a transcript of the conversation.
“You cannot say that to the press,” Trump said repeatedly, according to the transcript of the Jan 27 call published by the Washington Post.
Trump appeared resigned to the fact that funding he would need to be found elsewhere but threatened to cut off contact if Peña Nieto continued his public opposition to it.
A funding formula would be worked out “somehow,” Trump said. But “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 anymore because I cannot live with that.”
Trump's recognition that Mexico would not in the end pay for the wall is not a position he has not expressed publically in numerous speeches and comments to the media during his first six months in office.
The wall itself was not an especially important, Trump continued on the call, but added “politically this might be the most important,” issue he faced with Mexico, he said.
The sometimes testy exchange was one of several awkward calls Trump had with several heads of state in his early days in office. It also came two days after Trump had signed an executive order mandating construction of the wall.
The call provides an early insight into the problems Trump has had meeting his campaign promise to build "a big, beautiful wall." Six months after taking office Congress has yet to approve funding for it.
The White House did not deny the accuracy of the transcript on Thursday.
"What was shown in the transcript was the President negotiating something the President has experience in," a White House spokesperson told Univision News. "Clearly, President Trump is not abandoning his commitment to the wall and its place in securing our border."
The spokesperson noted that the House of Representatives voted last week to approve a spending bill with $1.6 billion set aside for a stretch of the border wall. An internal report by the Department of Homeland Security said the wall could cost about $21.6 billion, not including maintenance, while critics have said it could cost as much as $70 billion, plus $150 million to maintain.
Excerpts of Trump’s conversation with Peña Nieto were reported earlier this year. However, the full transcript reveals that Trump appeared deeply irritated by Peña Nieto's resistance, and concerned about how it could embarrass him politically.
Trump spent much of his call with Peña Nieto trying to persuade him to simply stop talking about how the wall would be paid for.
“I have to have Mexico pay for the wall — I have to,” he told Peña Nieto. “I have been talking about it for a two-year period.”
As a compromise, Trump proposed: “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.’"
Contrary to criticism of Peña Nieto perceived weak-kneed handling of Trump, the transcript shows him pushing back hard.
Trump’s very public insistence that Mexico would have to pay for the wall one way or another had placed “a very big mark on our back, Mr. President,” he told Trump. He warned that “my position has been and will continue to be very firm, saying that Mexico cannot pay for the wall.”
Trump objected: “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that, and I cannot live with that.”
Peña Nieto eventually agreed to stop talking about the wall, but insisted that it was “an issue related to the dignity of Mexico.”