(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s Matteo Salvini is off on his first official trip to the U.S., but the populist leader still doesn’t know if he’ll get the prize he wants most: an audience with Donald Trump, the man he cites as his political inspiration.
The deputy premier, the dominant force in his country’s quarrelsome ruling coalition, will sit down Monday in Washington with both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Salvini’s official schedule does not include a meeting with President Trump.
Still, a White House visit with Pence could yield some face time with the president, according to three officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential plans. That could take the form of a “spontaneous’’ encounter, one of the officials said, although Trump usually only meets with heads of state or leaders of governments.
‘Only a Deputy’
The usually bumptious Salvini struck a modest note Thursday when asked about the prospects for meeting Trump. “I’m only the deputy premier,’’ Salvini told Bloomberg News, as he paused from posing for selfies at a Queen’s birthday event hosted by the U.K. ambassador in Rome. Salvini beamed hopefully when asked about the possibility of an impromptu encounter.
The stakes are high for the 46-year-old Salvini. The League party leader has portrayed himself as Italy’s Trump, and even hailed his program as “the Trump cure’’ during the run-up to last month’s European parliamentary elections.
Salvini’s League party values Trump’s administration for its common principles as well as economic and immigration policies, the Italian deputy premier told NBC News. It’s important for Italy to have a good relationship with the U.S., he added.
Anything like an endorsement from Trump would boost Salvini’s populist credentials back home. Coalition partner Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, a frequent and often bitter rival to Salvini, has yet to meet the U.S. president.
Salvini is also eager to cast Italy as Trump’s most reliable ally in Europe, at a time when there’s a vacuum created by Brexit uncertainties and thorny U.S. relations with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France.
The League leader has regularly gone after both Macron and Merkel, calling them relics of a discredited establishment, while he himself is on a collision course with the European Commission as Italy risks punishment for failing to rein in its debt.
“I go to deal with the role of Italy in the world and of the alliance which was and remains strong between Italy and the U.S.,’’ Salvini told reporters in Rome Wednesday.
The League chief, who’s lobbied long and hard for a visit to Washington and a one-on-one with Trump, saw his hopes for a meeting in late February dashed when the U.S. president instead scheduled a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Undeterred, Salvini has followed Trump’s lead in tapping into voter discontent over immigration, the economy and a vaguely defined “political elite.” Salvini has even rolled out a Trump-like “Italy First’’ slogan (though “Make Italy Great Again” hats have yet to appear in Rome).
The Italian leader’s hosts may not be as enthusiastic about him as he is about them, however. Salvini can expect praise for Italy’s close ties with the U.S., and appreciation for its peacekeeping forces in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, according to one of the officials.
But the Italian deputy premier is also likely to be told about concerns over his criticism of EU sanctions against Russia, the official said. Salvini, who regularly praises President Vladimir Putin, has called the sanctions “economic, social and cultural madness,” though Italy has stopped short of vetoing their renewal.
(Adds Salvini comments from NBC interview in sixth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Maria Ermakova.
To contact the reporter on this story: John Follain in Rome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at email@example.com, Jerrold Colten, V. Ramakrishnan
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