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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.

But 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 in the previous, 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 United States at a time when democracy is beneath menace at residence and throughout the hemisphere.

Mr. Salazar, who invited the election overseer to his residence, informed The New York Times 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, in which America’s prime diplomat in Mexico has appeared to contradict his personal authorities’s insurance policies in 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 House’s agenda.

As the first buffer between the United States and record-high flows of migrants, Mr. López Obrador holds monumental 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 ability to break Mr. Biden’s political future by refusing to carry the road on migration.

Mr. Salazar has in reality succeeded in getting near the Mexican president.

But there may be rising concern inside the administration that the ambassador could have really compromised U.S. pursuits in the method — and has not leveraged the connection into coverage wins when Mr. Biden wants them most, in keeping 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 gas mistrust in the nation’s democracy; questioned the integrity of a U.S.-funded anticorruption nonprofit that had gone up in opposition to the president; induced 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 vital international locations ruled by unstable leaders, U.S. ambassadors typically should stroll a superb 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 United States.

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

The Mexican chief has pursued an vitality agenda that threatens American corporations 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 turn out to be the most important supply of migrants arriving on the U.S. border.

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

“The ambassador believes he’s close to AMLO,” mentioned Duncan Wood, the vice chairman of technique on the Wilson Center, utilizing the Mexican chief’s nickname. “Is there anything to show for it? I can’t find anything.”

The Biden administration, Mr. Wood mentioned, is “being played 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 laborious line immigration coverage beneath the specter of tariffs, and in alternate 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 report variety of migrants final 12 months.

At the identical time, although, Mr. Biden has vowed to pursue a broader agenda in the area, together with defending human rights and democracy — with out the heavy-handed techniques of his predecessor.

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

“What we need to do is to address these huge, unprecedented problems together,” Mr. Salazar mentioned. “And you can’t do it if you have an enemy.”

Mr. Salazar meets with Mexico’s chief frequently, 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. corporations 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.

“Some of the criticism that is levied at him is because he is engaging so actively with this government, but frankly, he’s doing it to try to advance U.S. interests,” 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 changed,” regardless of the ambassador’s skepticism.

“We recognize the outcome of the election results,” Mr. Gonzalez mentioned. “The U.S. has been on the record.”

Mr. Salazar, nevertheless, informed The New York Times that he was “not aware of the U.S. government line,” and that he nonetheless had doubts: “I have been told by many people who watched the vote that night, including people that have no ax to grind, who are very credible people, that there was fraud.”

It is episodes like these which have stoked considerations amongst U.S. officers who say that the ambassador could have gone too far. At occasions, he has induced confusion in regards to the U.S. place on a few of the most delicate coverage points.

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

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 might increase Mexico’s state-owned electrical utility and jeopardize billions in U.S. investments.

In March, the Mexican president invited the ambassador to hitch 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 Times, however his workers urged him to rethink, arguing that standing by Mr. López Obrador throughout considered one of his tirades could be dangerous for the Biden administration.

Eventually, the potential awkwardness was averted by what the ambassador mentioned was a “scheduling conflict.”

Earlier this 12 months, one outstanding civic chief wrote to Mr. Salazar in search of help in opposition to 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 Against Corruption and Impunity, investigates graft and is an everyday 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 approved to talk publicly.

But in the lead-up to the assembly, he informed his workers he had grown suspicious of the group and needed to analyze it.

The ambassador informed The Times he believed the opposition activism of the group’s founder “created the appearance of impropriety” and mentioned he would “advocate for the funding to be cut” if he discovered expenses of political exercise to be credible.

At 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 over and over that the group was not concerned in politics.

“Why should I believe you?” the ambassador then requested, in keeping with two folks acquainted with the assembly who requested to not be named for concern of reprisal.

“The only proof I have is my word,” Ms. Casar answered. The ambassador informed her that “this doesn’t smell good,” earlier than abruptly rising and reducing the assembly quick.

Mr. Salazar informed The Times he had each proper to boost “legal and ethical” points with a recipient of U.S. funding, including, “Somebody can tell you a lot of things that just aren’t true.”

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

All of 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.

In the lead as much as a key regional summit hosted by the administration in June, the Mexican president repeatedly bashed the United States 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 stored threatening to boycott the occasion, and a wave of nations adopted go well with.

In a last-ditch effort at diplomacy, the ambassador paid a go to to Mexico’s most vital spiritual website, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the day earlier than the summit was set to start.

“I pray at the Basilica to the Patroness of the Americas to lift up our leaders to chart a new transformative era 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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