About an hour before Donald Trump made his joint statement with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, a strategist in Trump's extended circle saw success on the horizon.
"I bet they have a nice meeting where they both explain their positions and promise to talk further — it doesn't have to be any more complicated than that," the strategist explained. "If [Trump] just has a calm, behind-closed-doors meeting, has a photo taken, looks presidential, and gets out of town, that's a big win."
Indeed, it was a big win — a very big win — for Trump. Going into a meeting with the potential for disaster — who knew how Pena Nieto would receive the world's most controversial presidential candidate or what embarrassments might lie ahead? — Trump came out of the meeting looking very much like a potential President of the United States. Standing beside the Mexican leader in front of a green-gray granite wall reminiscent of the United Nations, Trump presented the picture of a statesman.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Trump was reciting "The Snake" before a rowdy audience in Everett, Washington. In Mexico, he looked like a world leader.
Before the meeting, some in the Trump circle saw a win virtually no matter what happened. "It's a great gesture," another adviser said. "Frankly, the outcome doesn't matter. It's the fact that he did it. He took the guy up on his invitation, and even if there's no substance, at least the gesture was made, and it absolutely, totally overshadows anything Hillary Clinton is going to do for the next 48 hours."
After the hour-long session, Trump benefited enormously from the conventions and practices of international relations. There they were, the president at one podium and the candidate at another, translators translating, the assembled international press watching. When it came time to talk, Pena Nieto observed the niceties of diplomacy, treating Trump as a quasi-president already.
"I had a very open and constructive discussion with Donald Trump," Pena Nieto said. "Even though we may not agree on everything, I trust that together we will be able to find prosperity and security."
Not agree on everything? Before the meeting, it's fair to say that Pena Nieto and Trump didn't agree on much of anything — from the border wall to NAFTA to Trump's statements about Mexicans to Pena Nieto's statements about Trump. But after the meeting, the president and the candidate stood before the press like two world leaders calmly and rationally discussing the issues of the day.
It didn't matter that in his remarks, Pena Nieto offered a positive case for his country and his people that served as a rebuttal to much of what Trump has said in the past. What mattered more was the Mexican leader's public acceptance of Trump as an American leader.
Many polls have shown that large numbers of voters do not believe Trump is qualified to be president. After the session, the Trump campaign was quick to tout the trip as evidence that he is ready for the Oval Office.
"Mr. Trump's trip to Mexico is an impressive display of his ability to serve as our nation's president on day one," said deputy communications director Bryan Lanza in a statement. "This shows Mr. Trump's commitment to strengthening our economy as well as our relationship with our neighbor, Mexico."
Pena Nieto invited Clinton to visit, too. If she does, she will of course receive the kind of respectful, official treatment that she deserves. But Clinton, as a former secretary of state, has videos of zillions of photo ops showing her as a major player on the world stage. Trump had none. Until today.