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Trump puts Mexican president in a political vise

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing tremendous pressure to take a firm stand against President Donald Trump, just a week after the new U.S. leader took office.

Trump is highly unpopular in Mexico, perceived as someone who has repeatedly insulted the country. He has done little to change that sentiment, taking a hard stance on U.S.-Mexico relations.

That's bad news for Peña Nieto, whose political fate is in the balance. 

At the center of the controversy is one of Trump's signature campaign pledges, to build a border wall paid for by Mexico.

Payment for the wall has also become a central issue in Mexico, where Trump's demand is seen as an affront to national pride and an irrational demand that the government cannot afford to comply with.

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"There are things that go beyond negotiation, and this is something that we will not do, we will never do, because this is about our dignity and our pride," said Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Videgaray Thursday. 

Peña Nieto's team has little space to maneuver on the issue, with record low approval ratings and a political system at home gearing up for the 2018 presidential election.

On Thursday, Peña Nieto canceled a scheduled meeting with Trump in Washington after Trump tweeted, "If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting."

When they first caught wind of Trump's tweet, Videgaray and secretary of the economy Ildefonso Guajardo were in the White House, meeting a team led by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. 

"As that happened I asked for a pause and immediately called President Peña Nieto," said Videgaray. "I received his instruction to convey the message to the White House that if the condition to have the meeting was for Mexico to pay for the wall, then it was absolutely impossible for us to do."

Peña Nieto had already taken a hit at home when he backed away from canceling the meeting one day earlier. 

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order mandating construction of the wall while Videgaray and Guajardo held their first meetings at the White House. 

Opposition Sen. Armando Rios Piter of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) reacted, warning that Peña Nieto's "presence in the United States would be a very bad sign."

Margarita Zavala, a leading presidential contender for 2018 and wife of former President Felipe Calderón, called Trump's tweet a "humiliation" and blasted Peña Nieto for not canceling the trip sooner.

Despite the beating he took at home, Peña Nieto found allies in the Democratic Party and the international media.

"Less than one week after taking office, President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE is already causing serious damage to one of our most important relationships in the world. U.S. national security depends directly on cooperation with our neighbors. From addressing border security and drug trafficking to migration and economic issues, the United States is safer and stronger when we collaborate with Mexico," said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSchumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden on Putin: 'a worthy adversary' Antsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch MORE (D-Md.) 

The Washington Post's editorial board slammed Trump, saying he "seems determined" to change a strong bilateral relationship that has benefited both countries.

The New York Times called the debate over the wall payment a "tantrum" and warned that "allowing this view to drive trade and foreign policy toward Mexico could have disastrous consequences for workers and consumers in both countries."

Spanish newspaper El Pais published an editorial called "In Defense of Mexico." In it, the paper's editorial board warned that Trump's policies are part of a "racist and xenophobic agenda of which Mexico is the first victim."

For Mexico, the feud with Trump is threatening a trade relationship that was worth $531.1 billion in 2015.

The United States is by far Mexico's largest trading partner, accounting for more than 70 percent of the country's exports.

Mexico is also an important partner to the United States — it bought $236 billion of goods from the United States in 2015, making it the second-largest buyer of American goods after Canada. But that year, the United States also ran a $58 billion trade deficit with Mexico, according to the United States Trade Representative.

Trump latched on to that deficit, along with illegal immigration and an ongoing 10-year drug war in the country, during his presidential campaign.

In August, Peña Nieto invited then-GOP nominee Trump for a meeting and joint press conference in Mexico City, hoping to reassure Mexicans and investors that his government could successfully deal with a Trump administration.

Before that meeting, Peña Nieto had an already-dismal 23 percent approval rating. By Trump's inauguration, that number had dipped to 12 percent. 

The meeting also cost Videgaray his job as finance secretary, because he reportedly put together the meeting through a mutual friend of his and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and now White House advisor.

Videgaray came back to Peña Nieto's cabinet as secretary of Foreign Relations, tasked with maintaining a good relationship with the Trump administration. 

Videgaray and Guajardo rushed to Washington after the inauguration to set the stage for talks. 

After the tit-for-tat exchange that culminated in Peña Nieto's cancellation, the two leaders held an hourlong call Friday.

The White House and Peña Nieto's office sent out nearly identical releases after the call, but the Mexican version included a sentence saying the two leaders had agreed to no longer discuss the matter of the wall payment publicly. 

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, later confirmed the two leaders did indeed agree to keep quiet about the wall. 

"They agreed not to discuss how it will be paid for publicly, that they will continue to have those discussions privately," he said. 

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Trump is unlikely to quietly let the issue go.

"The audience for this showdown is not necessarily Mexico and the U.S.," said O'Connell.

"If you listen to Trump carefully, he wants to go after countries with high trade surpluses," he added. "The people watching this are places like China."