- - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

ROME — One is a flamboyant billionaire from Queens famous for speaking off the cuff, the other an obscure law professor from a small southern Italian village who rarely departs from his prepared remarks.

But among the leaders of the world’s industrialized countries, President Trump and newly installed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte seem to have forged an unexpected bond over two of the world’s prickliest geopolitical questions: the treatment of migrants and the global role Russia should play.

While the U.S. is drawing concentrated fire from many of its closest allies for its border and immigration policies, Italy has drawn ire from many of the same critics for turning away refugee rescue ships. At the contentious Group of Seven summit this month in Canada, Mr. Conte was the only leader to voice support for Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Russia — which had been booted from the exclusive club after its invasion of Crimea in Ukraine — should be allowed to rejoin.

Mr. Trump seemed appreciative of the support from Mr. Conte at the G-7 gathering, even as he was taking shots at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the summit’s host, over trade and other issues.

“The new prime minister of Italy is great,” Mr. Trump said in an interview on Fox News in Singapore, where he traveled after the G-7 summit for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “He’s very strong on immigration, like I am.”

Mr. Trump cited his Italian counterpart in an effort to rebut media reports that he was isolated at the summit and continued the charm offensive on Twitter.

Mr. Conte “will be honored in Washington, at the White House, shortly …,” Mr. Trump tweeted June 9. “The people of Italy got it right!”

Mr. Conte, who has never held elective office, seemed to be trying to walk a fine line at his first major international get-together, saying both sides had a point in trying to deal with the challenge from the Kremlin.

Italy thinks it’s important to have a dialogue with Russia, but this doesn’t mean that the system of sanctions can be overcome overnight,” he said in Canada.

Despite his low-key manner, Mr. Conte shares with Mr. Trump a delight in upsetting the political establishment and the dominance of traditional political parties and orthodoxies.

“If ‘populism’ is the attitude of the ruling class to listen to the people’s needs … and if ‘anti-establishment’ means aiming at introducing a new system able to remove old privileges and encrusted power, well [the new government] deserves both these epithets,” he said in his inaugural speech to the Italian Senate this month.

Blooming friendship

Many Italians appear not to know quite what to make of their hitherto obscure new leader’s new best friend. But some say Mr. Conte provided a lone reaffirming voice for Mr. Trump in a venue he is known to dislike.

“It does seem the two men have found common ground on some difficult areas,” said Arianna Montanari, a professor of political sociology at Rome’s Sapienza University. “They are both part of the same trend. Will anything change for the White House because Italy has some of the same views? Will the Italian government be bolstered by the situation? Maybe a little. But the real news is that the anti-establishment wave that created Brexit and then Trump’s victory has now rolled over Italy.”

Analysts said the face of that trend in Italy is not Mr. Conte, but rather Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-establishment League party and the powerful minister of the interior in Mr. Conte’s government.

Mr. Salvini is a longtime admirer of Mr. Trump. When Mr. Salvini was just the leader of a regional political party two years ago, he traveled to the U.S. expressly to meet and pose for a photo with candidate Trump. Mr. Salvini is the main author of the policy to turn away most refugee rescue ships headed for Italy from northern Africa that created a crisis within the European Union this week.

Although Mr. Salvini has not formally called for Russia’s return to the G-7, the League has been dogged by reports of Russian ties in recent years and, like Mr. Trump, Mr. Salvini says he is an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“For now, at least, it seems Salvini will have the biggest say in what direction the Italian government will head,” said Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, a former Italian diplomat who is now president of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs. “But Conte is the head of government, he has the final say, and Conte clearly has sympathies for much of Trump’s agenda.”

The Conte-Trump alliance is all the more striking for many Italians because it was not that long ago that center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was forming his own political bromance with Barack Obama, casting himself as a younger version of the liberal Democratic president and being feted as the guest of honor at Mr. Obama’s last state dinner in the White House. But Mr. Renzi faltered after his election in 2014, and his Democratic Party finished a distant third in the March general election behind the League and the 5-Star Movement, another populist, anti-establishment party.

After a lengthy negotiating phase, Italy’s current government has been in power since June 1. For its supporters, an endorsement from Mr. Trump for the unknown Mr. Conte carries weight.

“One or two months ago, Italy didn’t have a government and hardly anyone knew who Giuseppe Conte was,” said Riccardo Milanese, a 30-year-old restaurant manager who voted for the League in Italy’s general election. “Now he’s getting compliments on television from the president of the United States.”

But Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs consultant with ABS Securities in Milan, said supporters should keep Mr. Trump’s endorsement in perspective.

“In the short term, it’s much better to hear nice words from the U.S. president rather than the kind of critical comments he made about Canada and Trudeau,” Mr. Gallo said. “But I think Trump said what made sense for him personally. On Italian television, they had to add Conte’s name to the subtitles for that interview. Trump did not even say Conte’s name.”


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