President Trump on Monday reiterated that he “would have no problem” forcing a government shutdown in October if Congress doesn’t approve immigration restrictions he wants, along with funding for a southern border wall, but said his demands aren’t a nonnegotiable “red line.”
In a news conference at the White House alongside Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, the president also expressed a willingness to meet with Iran’s leaders “any time,” without preconditions, citing as precedents his recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump again criticized European countries for their trade policies and not meeting North Atlantic Treaty Organization funding guidelines, but he avoided singling out Italy. Instead, he found common cause with the anti-immigration stance of Conte’s ruling coalition, pointing to the nationalist, Euroskeptic government as a validation of his own views.
“The prime minster, frankly, is with us today because of illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Italy got tired of it. They didn’t want it any longer.”
The president took the opportunity of the televised news conference to reinforce his own anti-immigration demands and threaten Congress with a shutdown by indicating he would refuse to sign a new government funding bill when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30 if his proposals aren’t included.
“I would have no problem doing a shutdown,” he said. “It’s time we had proper border security. We’re the laughingstock of the world.”
Yet, to a reporter’s question, he signaled an openness to compromise, saying: “I’ll always leave room for negotiation.”
Similarly, when the reporter pressed, Trump said he would not draw a “red line.”
That wiggle room could be some comfort to Republican leaders in Congress, who desperately want to avoid a government shutdown roughly a month before the midterm elections, and thought they had Trump’s agreement. They were privately frustrated over the weekend when the president tweeted on Sunday about his willingness to force a high-stakes showdown around his signature political issue.
The Republican leaders, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, left a meeting with Trump last week believing they had prevailed upon him to wait until after the election to press for the funding, to avoid a fall shutdown that could further imperil Republican candidates and distract from the Senate’s effort to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But on Sunday, after members of Congress had gone home for a recess, Trump raised the prospect of a shutdown during a Twitter tirade against immigration.
“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!”
Trump has sought $25 billion for a border wall, but would not say on Monday if he wants Congress to deliver a specific dollar amount or how seriously he was demanding it approve other actions to limit what he calls “chain migration” and a visa lottery for legal immigrants.
“I have no red line, unlike President Obama,” he said, “I just want great border security.”
The statement was a reference to his predecessor’s so-called red line on Syrian gas attacks that went unenforced — and another indication of just how much Trump is driven by an impulse to reverse Obama’s policy legacies.
Moments later, however, Trump stated his willingness to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, though the questioner suggested that such a summit would be similar to the stance taken years ago by Obama, who Republicans excoriated when he said he would meet with leaders of belligerent nations, including Iran and North Korea.
“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said. “I don’t know that they’re ready yet. They’re having a hard time right now.”
Just over a week ago, Trump had spurred worries of war with Iran, by tweeting in capital letters: “To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
It was not clear if the president has discussed the possibility of meeting with Iranian leaders with his national security staff. Pointing to his summit with Putin earlier this month, a meeting that he claimed was a success even though “the media didn’t cover it that way,” Trump said he’s willing to sit down with any world leader at any time.
“I believe in meeting,” he said, adding that he had “no preconditions” for a sit-down with Iranian rulers. “If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want. Anytime they want.”
Trump and Conte promised to work together on issues related to Syria, where a 7-year-old civil war has become something of a proxy conflict involving Iran, Russia and the United States.
Conte, who praised Trump’s initial call in June for Russia’s readmission into the Group of 7 alliance of industrialized democracies, said Monday that he remains in favor of having a dialogue with Russia. He said that talks between Washington and Moscow are “fundamental” for broader stability and security.
He also said he was “envious” of the strong U.S. economy, which Trump again touted, and praised Trump for forcing “a very fruitful exchange of views and opinions” at the contentious NATO summit in Brussels earlier this month that left other U.S. allies shaking their heads.
Trump seized the opening to boast again, inaccurately, that he has forced allies to spend more for defense. Allies’ spending has risen since a 2014 NATO agreement, which called for military budgets equivalent to at least 2% of each nation’s gross domestic product, though the alliance’s chief has given Trump some credit.
“NATO was essentially going out of business, because people weren’t paying and it was going down, down, down,” Trump said.
Italy, which Trump chose not to mention with Conte standing beside him, spent just 1.35% of its GDP on defense last year, but has vowed to meet the 2% benchmark.
On immigration, Italy for years had relatively lax policies on accepting migrants escaping conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, many of them bound for other European countries. Lately, however, it has adopted a much tougher approach, which human rights activists say has contributed to a soaring death toll among refugees.
About 600 people drowned in June attempting to make it from Libya to Italy or the nearby island of Malta, and thousands more have perished or gone missing in recent years, according to United Nations figures. Under Conte’s government, Italy now attempts to prevent boats from arriving and encourages Libya to block them at sea. Human Rights Watch branded the new approach “hard-line and heartless.”
Trump’s reference to Italy having tightened security at its borders was a bit puzzling because Italy’s land borders are with France, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, and all are members of the European Union. As such, they belong to what is known as the Schengen agreement, which allows relatively open borders for travel within the European Union.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.