The Mexican government said Tuesday that it will award Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, senior adviser, and man in charge of many, many things at the White House, with its highest honor for foreigners.
The decision is facing an intense backlash in Mexico, where Trump has angered many with his rhetoric and aggressive stance on a border wall.
The Order of the Aztec Eagle — or La Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca, in Spanish — is the highest honor Mexico’s government bestows on foreigners. It is awarded to individuals who’ve done a great service for Mexico or for humanity. Previous recipients include and Roberta Jacobson, the former US ambassador to Mexico, Bill Gates, and Queen Elizabeth II.
Now Trump’s son-in-law will be added to the list.
Kushner is set to receive the honor Friday at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will bestow the award upon him for “his significant contributions in achieving the renegotiation” of the trade deal between Mexico, Canada, and the United States — the USMCA, or the deal formerly known as NAFTA.
“Mr. Kushner’s participation was decisive to beginning the [USMCA] renegotiation process, avoiding a unilateral departure by the US from the treaty,” Mexico’s foreign affairs department said in a statement. “And his constant and effective involvement was key to achieving a success in the negotiations.”
Critics in Mexico reacted swiftly and furiously to the news, objecting to decorating the son-in-law of a president who has used derogatory language about Mexicans and has insisted Mexico pay for Trump’s border wall.
“Kushner is the son-in-law of someone who called Mexicans “killers and rapists,” historian and essayist Enrique Krauze tweeted on Tuesday. “Giving him the Aztec Eagle is an act of supreme humiliation and cowardice.”
“[Jared] Kushner is the son-in-law of someone who called Mexicans “murderers and rapists.” Giving him the Aztec Eagle is a supreme attitude of humiliation and cowardice.” https://t.co/51xDA76iNA
— E. S. McIntyre (@ESMcIntyre) November 27, 2018
Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor and director, said the decision to give the award to Kushner diminished “whatever value this decoration would have had.”
Qué nivel de humillación auto infligida, demeritando cualquier valor agregado que esa condecoración pudiera tener. Vergüenza. Tremenda. Y ni se diga del encabronamiento que nos causa. https://t.co/Ab6MFbJNyo
— Gael Garcia Bernal (@GaelGarciaB) November 27, 2018
The pushback has forced President Peña Nieto to defend his decision, saying that he wanted to credit Kushner’s important role in the success of the NAFTA renegotiations. ”I want to recognize someone who has been a great ally of Mexico,” the outgoing president told reporters, on Tuesday, according to El País.
Enrique Peña Nieto is deeply unpopular in Mexico, and this award for Kushner isn’t likely to win over detractors who already felt Peña Nieto let himself — and by extension, Mexico — get bullied by Trump. Incoming leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is taking office on December 1, has promised to take a much tougher stance against the US president, but bitterness persists about Peña Nieto’s stance toward Trump.
”It is the ultimate Peña: He is finished, defeated, humiliated, but he still doesn’t care and offers this award to Kushner to almost show it off,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, an analyst at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, told NPR.
It’s a bad look for Peña because it’s hard to separate Kushner from Trump and his broader policies and rhetoric. Kushner played a role in the NAFTA talks, and reportedly helped keep negotiations on track with both Mexico and Canada.
Though Trump has touted the deal as “historic,” the trilateral trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the US is basically a revised version of NAFTA, with some important changes on the margins. But the USMCA isn’t even a completely done deal yet. The agreement still needs to be signed by all three countries, though that’s expected to happen at the G20 summit, and needs approval by lawmakers, including the US Congress.
But Duncan Wood, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said Kushner might have helped stop Trump from tearing up NAFTA altogether — and helped salvage parts of the bilateral relationship that became extremely testy during Trump’s tenure.
Kushner had “an outsized role in keeping things civil and keeping things moving forward,” Wood told me.
Of course, that fact alone isn’t enough to quell the controversy. Kushner might not have had to engage in such behind-the-scenes maneuvering had his father-in-law not publicly antagonized Mexico.
Jared Kushner tried to play the diplomat with Mexico. But it’s complicated.
Trump’s policy toward Mexico often seems tied to insults. He’s frequently demanded that the country pay for the border wall, accused Mexico of taking advantage of the US through NAFTA, and more.
Mexico has punched back, literally, with Trump piñatas and taking public stands against Trump’s policies, including widespread condemnation against Trump’s family separation policy at the US-Mexico border. President Peña Nieto traded barbs with Trump, but many Mexicans felt that their president didn’t challenge Trump enough. That failure made Peña Nieto even more despised in Mexico than Trump, as the joke goes.
Given this antagonism, Kushner’s award is a bit perplexing. But Kushner has been intimately involved in the US-Mexico relationship, and forged close, if controversial, ties with the Peña Nieto government even when he and Trump were doing battle.
Kushner’s foremost connection has been with foreign minister Luis Videgaray. The two seized control of bilateral relations, particularly in the early days of the Trump administration. Kushner and Videgaray became close during the Trump campaign. Videgaray (then finance minister) was tasked with doing the outreach to Trump in 2016, according to the Washington Post, which culminated in that strange Trump campaign detour to Mexico.
Their friendship was beneficial to each of them: Videgaray, by gaining ties to someone in Trump’s true inner circle, gained clout in the Mexican government. Kushner, seen as the conduit to his father-in-law, found people willing to work with him in Mexico. According to the Times, Kushner and Videgaray met dozens of times in the 15 months of Trump’s presidency.
“Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy,” a US official told the New Yorker in an article published last fall. “It’s all pretty much just between them. There’s not really any interagency relationships going on right now.”
This approach, of course, had its critics, who saw Kushner as personally managing the relationship and cutting out the policy experts at places such as the State Department.
It also did little to stop the public feuding between Peña Nieto and Trump, or to harness Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico, which kept ties strained — and showed the limits of Kushner’s influence.
Still, Kushner was dispatched to Mexico as a mediator on occasion, including a meeting in March with President Peña Nieto after talks with Trump crumbled. Kushner also reportedly helped broker some agreements on border cooperation, including one to combat drugs.
“It’s true — Jared has been a positive influence,” Gerónimo Gutiérrez, Mexico’s ambassador to Washington, told the New York Times in March. “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’s perceived power means it’s not surprising that Mexican officials would publicly praise him, and people in the White House that talk up Kushner’s diplomatic prowess have their own agenda. But it’s clear that Kushner was positioning himself to be a key player in the relationship, and it seems that work paid off.
Kushner, along with other advisers, helped convince Trump to renegotiate a trade deal, rather than totally scrap NAFTA. In an April interview with the Washington Post, Kushner hinted as much, claiming that he explained to the president the “plusses and minuses” of unilaterally pulling out of NAFTA.
The US, Mexico, and Canada began formally renegotiating the trade deal in August 2017, and reached a compromise more than a year later, on September 30. Reports suggest that Kushner worked on the sidelines, and helped smooth over rocky points during the negotiations, with both Mexico and Canada. And he definitely was seen during talks:
Hey, it’s Jared. I’m outside. Can someone let me in? … Jared KUSHNER, the president’s son-in-law … I’m here for the NAFTA negotiations … Can someone unlock the door? … There are reporters out here asking me about the op-ed, & it’s getting awkward. pic.twitter.com/in0FHsTtIr
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) September 7, 2018
But Wood, the Mexico expert, told me that Kushner’s award was more about the broader bilateral relationship than about USMCA. Kushner was able to keep the dialogue going, Wood said, even when Trump’s actions threatened to create a serious rift with a close economic and security partner.
Of course, there are reasons to look skeptically on Kushner’s diplomacy and what he accomplished, especially since it’s done little to tamp down Trump’s bellicose approach to Mexico. Honoring Kushner for shadow diplomacy to help preserve a relationship that Trump himself made precarious in the first place isn’t particularly satisfying. It also feeds the public perception that is Peña Nieto is backing down or deferring to Trump one last time.
Mexico is about to get an entirely new government under the leadership of the incoming leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who takes office on December 1. (Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife, will reportedly be at AMLO’s inauguration.) AMLO has promised tougher stance against the US, but Mexico will still have to work closely with Trump for at least the next two years.
Which means there’s another reason Peña Nieto chose to honor Jared: to possibly secure future investment in his commitment to Mexico. “By giving this award,” Wood said, “you’re hoping to stay involved in the bilateral relationship.”
So far, AMLO and Trump seem to have gotten along much better than expected. But AMLO has little diplomatic experience, and relations between Mexico and the US are still under strain. AMLO’s incoming government is reportedly working with the Trump administration on a plan to keep asylum seekers in Mexico as they await processing in the US, a deal that could be tricky to strike and could implode if tensions flare, or if Trump starts tweeting.
Kushner, now part of the Order of the Eagle, could be the one interceding again.