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Team Trump looks to start off on right foot with Mexico president-elect


Top officials from US President Donald Trump's administration met Friday with Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with both sides upbeat on the potential for a turning point in the countries' troubled relationship.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the high-level delegation to meet the leftist leader known as "AMLO," who will take office on December 1 after winning a landslide election victory.

Trump's son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were also along for the one-day trip, which included meetings with Mexico's outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

Pompeo was all smiles as he met Lopez Obrador on the leftist leader's own turf -- an aging Mexico City house with scant security where he has set up his transition team's offices.

"We look forward to working with President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador," Pompeo said later at a press conference.

"It was a priority for me to begin building our relationship with him and his team."

Lopez Obrador's pick for foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, also said the meeting had been positive.

"It was a frank, respectful and cordial dialogue. It was a successful first conversation," he told a separate press conference.

"I believe we can be reasonably optimistic that Mexico will be able to find a basis for understanding and have a better relationship with the United States."

- Putting Trump 'in his place'? -

US-Mexican relations have been strained since Trump won the 2016 presidential election after a campaign laced with anti-Mexican insults, attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and vows to make Mexico pay for a wall on the common border.

Since then, US tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum, Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy on undocumented immigrants, and Pena Nieto's two abrupt cancellations of visits to Washington have only added to the tension.

Lopez Obrador, 64, pledged during the campaign to "put (Trump) in his place."

But both men say they had a positive phone call the day after Mexico's July 1 election, and Lopez Obrador has invited Trump to his inauguration.

Lopez Obrador won the polls with over 53 percent of the vote -- more than 30 points clear of his nearest rival -- by promising to end corruption, govern for the poor and fight brutal violence driven by Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

Despite their ideological differences, some commentators have drawn parallels between Trump and Lopez Obrador: both are free trade skeptics who mobilized a disgruntled base with anti-establishment campaigns.

Trump has even reportedly taken to calling Lopez Obrador "Juan Trump" in private.

- Touchy issues -

Lopez Obrador's arrival gives both countries an opportunity to turn a page on their recent acrimony, said Carin Zissis, a Mexico specialist at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Pompeo's visit "gives them the chance to take this moment when there's a chance for change and revisit the relationship," she told AFP.

However, she added, "we all know that the Trump administration is unpredictable... All it takes is an angry tweet at 6:00 in the morning, and everything appears to be undone."

Ebrard said Lopez Obrador had presented the US delegation with a comprehensive plan to improve US-Mexican relations.

The future foreign minister -- who worked on Latino get-out-the-vote campaigns on behalf of Trump's 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton -- said the plan touches on what Lopez Obrador sees as the four key issues in the relationship: trade, development, migration and security.

Migration is a particularly sore spot at the moment.

The Homeland Security Department had said Nielsen would raise the issue of Central American migrants who cross Mexico to reach the United States, insisting on a "shared responsibility" to stem migrant flows and keep them from reaching the US.

Pena Nieto had his own demands on the issue.

The Mexican president "asked the Secretary of State to ensure that (migrant) families separated at the border are quickly reunited," his office said after a private meeting with the US delegation.

But the outgoing president and the Americans sought common ground on NAFTA. Pena Nieto said they had agreed to continue working "constructively" to renegotiate the 1994 deal.

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