MIAMI – The Biden administration turned down a meeting request with El Salvador’s president on an unannounced trip to Washington last week, as criticism of the Central American leader mounts among Democrats, three people with knowledge of the decision said Monday.
The trip by Nayib Bukele, which has not been previously reported, came after a senior White House official warned in an interview with a Salvadoran news outlet highly critical of Bukele that the Biden administration expected to have “differences” with him.
Bukele was quick to embrace former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies restricting asylum requests, which won him a great deal of U.S. support for his tough governing style in El Salvador, where he is popular. But like other world leaders befriended by Trump, he faces an uphill climb pivoting to the Biden administration, which is seeking to undo those policies and has signaled its relationship with El Salvador is under review.
The president’s surprise trip amid a pandemic posed a dilemma for U.S. policy makers. They were given little advance notice and are mostly avoiding in-person meetings due to the coronavirus and because many senior positions remain vacant, said the the three people, all of whom are in Washington and insisted on speaking anonymously in return for discussing internal decision-making.
In rejecting Bukele’s request, the Biden officials wanted to ensure Bukele didn’t try to tout any meeting as a show of support before legislative elections later this month where he's seeking to expand his power base, the people said. However, they did make an exception for Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, who met in Washington with senior Biden officials 11 days before the Andean nation’s presidential election.
Bukele insisted that the trip was private and that he didn't request any meeting with Biden officials.
What “president in the world will go to a trip with his wife and baby girl to sit down in Washington and ask for random meetings to be held immediately? That doesn’t even make sense,” he said in a text message.
The three people didn't say how the request for a meeting was made. But they said the decision not to meet with Bukele was deliberate.