The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We’re both outsiders’: Trump casts himself and Italy’s populist prime minister as kindred spirits

President Trump with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in the Oval Office on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Monday praised Italy’s populist Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for striking a hard line on immigration and used his visit to the White House to reiterate a threat to shut down the federal government over border-control funding.

Trump and Conte, who was installed last month to lead an anti-establishment coalition government, expressed camaraderie on a range of issues, billing themselves as kindred spirits in their bids to upset the status quo.

During a joint news conference, Trump said he is the “most closely aligned” with Conte over any of the other five leaders in the Group of Seven nations, which include U.S. allies France, Germany and Britain. The two first met at the G-7 summit in Canada last month, where Trump disrupted what had typically been a close-knit economic dialogue by abruptly yanking support for a joint statement after the conference.

“We’re both outsiders to politics — can you believe it?” Trump said, standing next to Conte in the East Room.

Trump said his counterpart was doing a “fantastic job” in his efforts to curb immigration levels, as Italy and other European nations have struggled to deal with a spike of migrants from northern Africa and the Middle East in recent years.

Trump emphasized at the news conference that he would have “no problem doing a shutdown” if Congress fails to support border-control measures backed by the White House, including billions of dollars for his proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We agreed that border security is national security — they are one and the same,” Trump said. “Like the United States, Italy is under enormous strain as the result of illegal immigration, and they fought it hard. . . . Italy got tired of it; they didn’t want it any longer.”

Trump, who first threatened a potential shutdown over the weekend in a tweet, said he has “no red line” and would leave room for negotiations over his demands.

But the president added: “I would certainly be willing to consider a shutdown if we don’t get proper border security.”

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have sought to avoid a shutdown, which could come in October, just ahead of the midterm elections in November. Republicans are worried about the potential of losing control of the House amid polling that shows Democrats holding an edge in general support among registered voters.

“It’s disgraceful — we have laws that don’t work,” Trump said. “We’re working around those laws. It’s unfortunate.”

Trump berates NATO allies and then asks them to double their defense spending goals

Conte, a soft-spoken lawyer with no previous political experience, was a consensus choice after two populist political movements came out ahead in 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 an easing 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.

Ahead of Conte’s visit, Trump had cheered the Italian premier’s role as the lone supporter of Trump’s public desire to invite Russia back into what was previously the Group of Eight leading economies. (It became the G-7 when Russia was suspended in 2014 over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.)

At their news conference, Conte appeared to endorse Trump’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki two weeks ago, agreeing with him that “if you want to solve a problem, you cannot choose your counterparts.”

Conte’s government has suggested it would be willing to support easing some economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union. Asked about that position, he said that “it is unthinkable to lift those sanctions overnight.”

But he added that he remains “open to dialogue with Russia” and that the sanctions “cannot represent an end” to relations with that nation.

Trump has drawn intense criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for his relationship with Putin, including failing to warn him directly in public over Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.

Trump jumped in after Conte finished talking at the news conference to declare that “sanctions against Russia will remain — as is.”

On the issue of NATO defense spending, Italy is among the countries that do not meet the collective target of 2 percent of gross domestic product per member nation, something Trump has repeatedly denounced as unfair to the United States, which does meet the goal.

Conte sought to convince Trump that he understood the criticism, stating that it was a “reasonable position.”

“I will be the carrier of that message,” Conte said, “and I will try to make others understand his positions, as well.”