President Donald Trump welcomed new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the White House on Monday, eager to showcase the ascension in Europe of a like-minded populist with a get-tough approach to immigration.
Trump pointed to their shared view on the topic as he and Conte sat down for an Oval Office meeting.
“He’s a man who is doing a fantastic job,” Trump said.
“I agree very much with what he’s doing on migration and illegal immigration, and even legal immigration,” Trump said.
“I know he’s taken a very firm stance on the border, a stance few countries have taken, and frankly he’s doing the right thing in my opinion,” Trump said. “A lot of other countries in Europe should be doing it also.”
Trump had earlier cheered Conte’s role as the lone supporter for Trump’s hope to invite Russia back into the Group of Seven economic club.
The anti-establishment coalition government Conte leads shares Trump’s view that immigration has gotten out of hand, and Trump tweeted last month that in selecting Conte, “the people of Italy got it right.”
Conte, a soft-spoken lawyer with no previous political experience, was a consensus choice after two right-leaning populist political movements led results of Italy’s March 4 election. The election planks that led to Europe’s only fully populist government sound familiar: Promises to crack down on migration, suspicion of collective decision-making and regulation in Europe, a desire for better relations with Russia and a lessening of sanctions on Moscow.
The common ground is a rare example of transatlantic cooperation at a time when Trump has strained alliances by imposing tariffs, criticizing the leaders of Germany and Britain, and railing against what he considers freeloading by NATO allies who do not meet targets for defense spending.
Trump called the European Union a trade “foe,” before reaching a tentative agreement to improve trade ties with Europe last week.
Trump and Conte have met twice before, including a warm session at the otherwise rancorous G-7 summit in Canada last month. They also met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels earlier this month, where Trump said he and Conte both won their positions partly because of their view on immigration.
“I probably, at least partially, won an election because of immigration,” Trump said during a news conference at NATO headquarters. “Giuseppe, who I got to know quite well over the last month and a half, he won his election because of strong immigration policies on Italy.”
Conte did not win an election, but was selected as a compromise between the far-right League and the more politically amorphous Five Star Movement.
Italy is among European nations that do not meet the defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP, but does help the United States as a troop-contributor in Afghanistan, one of the topics that the Italian government said would be under discussion in Washington.
The United States wants Italy to maintain its role in Afghanistan, although Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta has said the country may reduce its troop commitment.