President Trump got right to the point of why he was pleased to welcome Brazil’s new far-right leader for a showy White House visit Tuesday: It’s good to be liked, and maybe even better to be imitated.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “has done a very outstanding job, ran one of the incredible campaigns; somebody said it a little bit reminds people of our campaign, which I’m honored by,” Trump said as he and his fellow pro-business populist sat for pictures in the Oval Office.
For Trump, the rise of a South American political admirer offers real economic and geopolitical advantages, and a measure of sweet revenge against critics who call both men crass race-baiters. Bolsonaro has embraced his nickname the “Trump of the Tropics.”
“We do have a great deal of shared values. I admire President Donald Trump,” Bolsonaro said, before the two leaders exchanged gifts of soccer jerseys with one another’s names on the backs.
Bolsonaro rode a populist wave of anger over crime, corruption and inefficiency to replace a left-leaning government that had sometimes frosty relations with Washington. He campaigned on turning the relationship around, repeatedly praised Trump and welcomed comparisons to him as a straight-talking champion of the little guy.
Bolsonaro has cribbed from the Trump playbook to demonize opponents and embrace the online megaphone of Twitter, where he now regularly invokes Trump’s signature “fake news” smear against media coverage he considers unfair.
Holding a Rose Garden news conference with Bolsonaro on Tuesday, Trump said he was “very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news.’ ”
Trump was the first foreign leader to call Bolsonaro after his election victory in October, and he also tweeted enthusiastic congratulations.
On Tuesday, Trump and Bolsonaro gushed about the possibilities for partnership after decades of what Bolsonaro called “anti-American” leadership, and shared goals of expanded trade, an upgraded military relationship and a new agreement for U.S. use of Brazil’s space launch facility.
They agreed that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro should cede power, and Bolsonaro endorsed Trump’s implied threat of military action.
“I think I can speak for both countries, all options are on the table,” Trump said.
Trump speaks for both leaders in other ways, too, as Bolsonaro seemed happy to point out during their joint news conference.
“We want to have a great America, yes, and we want to have a great Brazil, too,” a smiling Bolsonaro said through an interpreter.
Trump did not disagree as Bolsonaro said that “Brazil and the United States stand side-by-side in their efforts to ensure liberty and respect for traditional family lifestyles with respect to God.” He added that they are also united “against politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has a polarizing history of commentary that critics call xenophobic, anti-immigrant, misogynistic and homophobic. As a candidate, he defended his country’s former military dictatorship and said he would rather have “a dead son than a gay one.”
National security adviser John Bolton traveled to Brazil to meet with Bolsonaro a month after his election, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended his inauguration.
Bolsonaro chose Trump as the first foreign head of state he would visit, and Trump rewarded Bolsonaro with plans to place the countries’ military partnership at a level nearly commensurate with NATO. He also mused that perhaps the transatlantic miliary alliance could one day welcome Brazil. That would require agreement among the more than two dozen, mostly European, allies, for whom less dramatic expansion within Europe has proved divisive.
As he often does, Trump blamed socialism for Venezuela’s economic collapse under Maduro and said he hoped that the “twilight hour” of socialism had arrived in Latin America and the United States.
“The last thing we want in the United States is socialism,” Trump said, in a reference to policies endorsed by many of his Democratic challengers that Republicans allege are socialist.
Bolsonaro kept up the warm words for Trump when asked whether the newfound friendliness with Washington would cool if Americans elected a socialist at the next election in 2020.
“We will respect whatever the ballots tell us on 2020, but I do believe Donald Trump is going to be reelected, fully,” Bolsonaro said.
Brazil has struggled to cope with an influx of Venezuelan refugees, and it followed the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president. The United States has positioned humanitarian aid at Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia, but Maduro has blocked its entry.
Trump said Tuesday that “we don’t want to say exactly” what he would like to see happen next in Venezuela, where he has repeatedly said he reserves the option of a U.S. military intervention to unseat Maduro.
“I know exactly what I want to happen in Venezuela, but we’re going to be talking about different things. All options are on the table,” Trump said.
The president’s remarks on Venezuela came as his administration announced new sanctions targeting Venezuela’s gold mining, part of a series of financial penalties aimed at cutting off Maduro’s access to hard currency.
Ahead of Tuesday’s warm welcome at the White House, Bolsonaro said the United States and Brazil would sign an agreement permitting American satellite and rocket launches from Brazil’s Alcantara space launch center. Bolsonaro had jump-started stalled talks over the base as part of his pro-U.S. approach.
“For the first time in a while, a pro-America Brazilian president arrives in DC,” Bolsonaro tweeted in Portuguese as he arrived Sunday. “It’s the beginning of a partnership focused on liberty and prosperity, something that all of us Brazilians have long wished for.”
The United States is Brazil’s biggest trade partner after China. Before Bolsonaro’s election, Trump railed against Brazil’s trade strategy. “They charge us whatever they want,” he said in October. According to the Commerce Department, the United States had an $8.3 billion trade surplus with Brazil in 2018.
Marveling at the political turnaround in January, Trump praised Bolsonaro in remarks to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in New Orleans.
“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America. Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”