Politics: Jared Kushner is still in the driver’s seat on US-Mexico relations, but a deeper problem persists

Politics: Jared Kushner is still in the driver's seat on US-Mexico relations, but a deeper problem persistsJared Kushner, second from left, and Luis Videgaray, second from right, during a meeting with other Mexican and US officials in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017.

Jared Kushner holds the reins for Trump's dealings with Mexico, and that could have a lasting impact on the bilateral relationship.

  • President Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto continue to rely on officials close to them to manage bilateral relations.
  • Amid a tense atmosphere, the two countries have continued cooperation on some issues.
  • But the emphasis on personal relationships over institutional ones could cause trouble in the future.

US-Mexico relations under President Donald Trump have been characterized by disruption, but Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, has reportedly been working diligently to mend the frays.

Kushner has lobbied Trump to stop insisting Mexico pay for the border wall he promised as part of his campaign, according to The New York Times. His efforts have apparently been successful so far, as Trump did not mention Mexico when complaining the most recent spending bill he signed did not include funding for the wall.

Kushner has also been working behind the scenes to preserve the relationship between the two countries.

US Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray signed several agreements this week — one aimed at promoting cooperation to stop illegal merchandise from crossing the border, one to implement joint inspection programs along the frontier, and one to promote agricultural trade. Nielsen said around 20 more were being worked on, and White House officials told The Times that several US federal agencies would announce agreements in the coming weeks.

Those deals are reportedly the result of the personal diplomacy spearheaded by Kushner with Videgaray, who is close to Peña Nieto and has become Kushner's closest interlocutor.

"It's true — Jared has been a positive influence," Geronimo Gutierrez, Mexico's ambassador to the US, told The Times. "Our dialogue is not limited to the White House. However, if we didn’t have that dialogue with Mr. Kushner, the relationship would be much worse off."

Kushner and Videgaray developed a relationship during the transition, and after a contentious phone conversation between Trump and Peña Nieto, both leaders agreed Kushner and Videgaray should put a positive spin on the exchange.

Kushner's assumption of the US-Mexico portfolio, which he managed in addition to initiatives in the Middle East and with China, raised ire in the State Department, where former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson felt his responsibilities were being usurped.

"Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy," a US official told The New Yorker in late 2017.

In early March, Kushner was dispatched to Mexico City after a meeting between Trump and Peña Nieto was scrapped because of another tense phone call. That trip came just a few weeks after Kushner was stripped of his top-secret security clearance, and again aggravated the State Department, as the US ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, was excluded.

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Kimberly Breier, a State Department official recently nominated to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was present, however. Aides told The Times that Kushner wanted a more intimate meeting and noted that Jacobson plans to retire in May.

The Mexican government has 'put all their eggs in Jared Kushner's basket'

But the exchange underscored the emphasis both administrations have put on personal dealings, elevating them over institutional relations in bilateral affairs.

"It is highly problematic that Jared Kushner selectively excludes key people, like the US ambassador to Mexico," Greg Weeks, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told Business Insider. "It was a good idea to include the nominee for assistant secretary, but exclusion reinforces the impression that he is the only individual Mexico should fruitfully deal with."

The Mexican government has "put all their eggs in Jared Kushner's basket," Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's consul general in Austin, Texas, from 2005 to 2007 and ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, told Business Insider in a mid-March interview.

"I guess because it has worked for them, but I tend to think it's better to institutionalize the relationship, and if you go through the State Department or the respective institutions, you're better positioned to withstand any shocks."

"If Jared Kushner leaves tomorrow, for whatever reason — or as we used to say, if martians come down and take Jared Kushner away — you're safe because you have your institutional relationship," Guajardo said. While the Peña Nieto administration has been dealt "a difficult card," he said, "the Mexican government has not been very good at keeping the institutional relationship."

Officials in the US and Mexico have touted the current state of affairs.

Videgaray himself said it was "more fluid" and "closer than it was with previous administrations."

Jose Cardenas, a senior official at the US Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration, pointed to progress on NAFTA talks and continued cooperation on security matters and regional affairs — as well as Videgaray's comments and Trump's recent kind words for Peña Nieto — as signs US-Mexico relations "remain strong and have proved durable."

The US and Mexico have long cooperated on security issues and worked together on border issues.

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Kushner, who still faces scrutiny for his business dealings but has reportedly said he's not going anywhere, may eek out near-term successes. However, Trump's reliance on him — and Peña Nieto's reliance on Videgaray — augurs poorly for the future, both Guajardo and Weeks said.

"Not only is it a problem for you, as a counterpart to the United States, but for your successor as well, because whatever the case, Mexico will have a new government come December 1, and it is this current administration's responsibility to ensure that there is a good transition," Guajardo told Business Insider.

"When you have done everything through your personal connections with Jared Kushner, well it doesn't necessarily provide for an institutional transition of power, since the incoming administration may not have that personal relationship with Kushner."

"Without formal institutional channels everything will be reset when the new Mexican president takes office on December 1, and the status of US-Mexican relations could hinge to a large extent on whether the new foreign minister gets along personally with Kushner," Weeks said. "By definition, this is an unstable way of making policy."

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