Has Biden’s Top Diplomat in Mexico Gone Too Far, Officials Ask?

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s election czar delivered a message to the American ambassador: The Mexican president was mounting an all-out assault on the nationwide elections authority, sowing doubt a few pillar of the nation’s democracy.

However as an alternative of expressing alarm, America’s prime diplomat in Mexico took up one of many president’s traces of assault, entertaining claims that an election lengthy prior to now, in 2006, had been stolen from the Mexican chief.

The ambassador, Ken Salazar, mentioned in an interview that he was not satisfied that the election was clear, difficult the stance of the USA at a time when democracy is beneath risk at residence and throughout the hemisphere.

Mr. Salazar, who invited the election overseer to his residence, informed The New York Occasions he needed to know: “Was there fraud?”

The matter had lengthy been settled — for Mexico’s judicial system, the European Union and the American authorities — till now.

This ambassador’s willingness to query the election’s legitimacy is the most recent instance of what a number of U.S. officers say is a worrying sample, during which America’s prime diplomat in Mexico has appeared to contradict his personal authorities’s insurance policies within the curiosity of aligning himself with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

When he took the job in September 2021, Mr. Salazar was informed to prioritize constructing a powerful relationship with Mr. López Obrador in hopes it might advance the White Home’s agenda.

As the first buffer between the USA and record-high flows of migrants, Mr. López Obrador holds huge leverage over Mr. Biden and his presidency.

Preserving Mexico’s cooperation, administration officers mentioned, meant avoiding battle with a mercurial Mexican chief who had the facility to break Mr. Biden’s political future by refusing to carry the road on migration.

Mr. Salazar has the truth is succeeded in getting near the Mexican president.

However there’s rising concern throughout the administration that the ambassador could have truly compromised U.S. pursuits within the course of — and has not leveraged the connection into coverage wins when Mr. Biden wants them most, in accordance with interviews with greater than a dozen present and former officers and analysts.

The ambassador has rehashed debunked claims of a stolen election utilized by the Mexican president to gasoline mistrust within the nation’s democracy; questioned the integrity of a U.S.-funded anticorruption nonprofit that had gone up towards the president; prompted a political storm by showing to sign help for an vitality overhaul the U.S. authorities opposed; and has stayed silent as Mr. López Obrador relentlessly assaults journalists.

In strategically necessary international locations ruled by risky leaders, U.S. ambassadors usually should stroll a fantastic line between cultivating a bond with the president and pushing their very own authorities’s priorities.

Mr. Salazar insists his “direct relationship” with Mr. López Obrador advantages the USA.

But contained in the U.S. authorities, some are questioning whether or not the administration’s mushy method is definitely working — or merely emboldening Mr. López Obrador as he challenges American affect and undermines democratic safeguards, in accordance with senior U.S. officers who weren’t licensed to talk publicly.

The Mexican chief has pursued an vitality agenda that threatens American firms and commonly makes use of his bully pulpit to discredit and personally insult those that query his authorities.

The economic system is cratering, violence continues to rage and now Mexico — not Central America — has change into the largest supply of migrants arriving on the U.S. border.

Even after the ambassador’s allure offensive, the Mexican president led a number of leaders in boycotting a significant summit hosted by the administration in June, embarrassing Mr. Biden on a world stage.

“The ambassador believes he’s near AMLO,” mentioned Duncan Wooden, the vp of technique on the Wilson Middle, utilizing the Mexican chief’s nickname. “Is there something to point out for it? I can’t discover something.”

The Biden administration, Mr. Wooden mentioned, is “being performed by AMLO.”

From the start of his tenure, Mr. Biden has had a fraught relationship with the Mexican president, who initially refused to acknowledge his election victory.

President Donald J. Trump, when he was in workplace, coerced Mr. López Obrador into executing his arduous line immigration coverage beneath the specter of tariffs, and in trade left the Mexican chief alone to pursue his home agenda.

The Biden administration is simply as reliant on Mexico for migration enforcement, and Mr. López Obrador’s authorities has devoted important assets to that effort, arresting a file variety of migrants final yr.

On the similar time, although, Mr. Biden has vowed to pursue a broader agenda within the area, together with defending human rights and democracy — with out the heavy-handed ways of his predecessor.

Mr. Salazar was seen as the right man to mollify the Mexican president. Officers assumed the previous Democratic senator’s folksy method would work nicely with Mr. López Obrador’s man-of-the-people persona.

“What we have to do is to handle these big, unprecedented issues collectively,” Mr. Salazar mentioned. “And you may’t do it when you’ve got an enemy.”

Mr. Salazar meets with Mexico’s chief regularly, securing important entry to the nation’s prime energy dealer.

As Mr. López Obrador pursued vitality overhauls, the ambassador arrange conferences between the Mexican chief and U.S. firms affected. Mr. Salazar told Reuters that the U.S. authorities is making progress on settling disputes affecting greater than $30 billion of American funding in Mexico’s vitality sector.

Publicly, the Biden administration stands by Mr. Salazar.

“Among the criticism that’s levied at him is as a result of he’s participating so actively with this authorities, however frankly, he’s doing it to attempt to advance U.S. pursuits,” mentioned Juan Gonzalez, Mr. Biden’s prime adviser on Latin America.

As for Mr. López Obrador’s declare that the 2006 election was stolen from him, Mr. Gonzalez confirmed in an interview that the U.S. place on the matter “has not modified,” regardless of the ambassador’s skepticism.

“We acknowledge the result of the election outcomes,” Mr. Gonzalez mentioned. “The U.S. has been on the file.”

Mr. Salazar, nonetheless, informed The New York Occasions that he was “not conscious of the U.S. authorities line,” and that he nonetheless had doubts: “I’ve been informed by many individuals who watched the vote that night time, together with folks that don’t have any ax to grind, who’re very credible individuals, that there was fraud.”

It’s episodes like these which have stoked issues amongst U.S. officers who say that the ambassador could have gone too far. At occasions, he has prompted confusion concerning the U.S. place on a number of the most delicate coverage points.

Weeks after Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. vitality secretary, flew to Mexico to precise concern concerning the vitality adjustments, Mr. Salazar appeared to contradict her message, telling Mexican journalists that “the president is correct” to pursue adjustments to the regulation.

The remark, which Mr. Salazar mentioned was taken out of context, was marshaled by Mr. López Obrador to sign the ambassador’s help for laws that will enhance Mexico’s state-owned electrical utility and jeopardize billions in U.S. investments.

In March, the Mexican president invited the ambassador to affix him at his every day information convention, the place he takes the stage to push authorities speaking factors and assail anybody he considers an adversary — together with the U.S. authorities.

Mr. Salazar needed to attend, he informed The Occasions, however his workers urged him to rethink, arguing that standing by Mr. López Obrador throughout one in all his tirades can be dangerous for the Biden administration.

Finally, the potential awkwardness was averted by what the ambassador mentioned was a “scheduling battle.”

Earlier this yr, one outstanding civic chief wrote to Mr. Salazar looking for help towards Mr. López Obrador’s assaults on advocacy teams. The chief, María Amparo Casar, was then summoned to Mr. Salazar’s residence.

Ms. Casar’s nonprofit, Mexicans Towards Corruption and Impunity, investigates graft and is a daily goal of Mr. López Obrador’s scorn.

The president had additionally assailed the U.S. authorities for funding the group, which was co-founded by a businessman who left the group to type an opposition motion.

A senior Biden administration official had already informed Mr. Salazar that the administration wouldn’t pull financing for the group, mentioned two U.S. officers who weren’t licensed to talk publicly.

However within the lead-up to the assembly, he informed his workers he had grown suspicious of the group and needed to research it.

The ambassador informed The Occasions he believed the opposition activism of the group’s founder “created the looks of impropriety” and mentioned he would “advocate for the funding to be reduce” if he discovered prices of political exercise to be credible.

On the assembly, Mr. Salazar grilled Ms. Casar, questioning whether or not her group was secretly concerned in politics. Ms. Casar, shocked, mentioned no, explaining that U.S. authorities auditors had decided again and again that the group was not concerned in politics.

“Why ought to I consider you?” the ambassador then requested, in accordance with two individuals acquainted with the assembly who requested to not be named for concern of reprisal.

“The one proof I’ve is my phrase,” Ms. Casar answered. The ambassador informed her that “this doesn’t odor good,” earlier than abruptly rising and reducing the assembly brief.

Mr. Salazar informed The Occasions he had each proper to lift “authorized and moral” points with a recipient of U.S. funding, including, “Anyone can inform you numerous issues that simply aren’t true.”

Mr. Gonzalez informed The Occasions that the American authorities would proceed to fund Ms. Casar’s group. “The coverage of the U.S. is evident on this,” he mentioned.

All the political capital the ambassador has tried to construct with Mexico’s president was not sufficient to cease him from delivering a humiliating rebuke to Mr. Biden final month.

Within the lead as much as a key regional summit hosted by the administration in June, the Mexican president repeatedly bashed the USA for not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela.

Mr. Salazar pleaded with him to attend, mentioned a U.S. Embassy official who requested anonymity to keep away from reprisal, however Mr. López Obrador saved threatening to boycott the occasion, and a wave of nations adopted swimsuit.

In a last-ditch effort at diplomacy, the ambassador paid a go to to Mexico’s most necessary non secular web site, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the day earlier than the summit was set to start.

“I pray on the Basilica to the Patroness of the Americas to carry up our leaders to chart a brand new transformative period for the Americas and the US-Mexico relationship,” Mr. Salazar posted on Twitter.

Mr. López Obrador formally dropped out of the occasion the subsequent day.

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