On the surface, the visit of the Italian prime minister to the White House seemed like it went great. Yes, President Donald Trump filled the country of Verdi and Pavarotti, a great friend of his, with praise for its culture and thousand-year-old history. But in reality, the Italian government goes back to Italy with a validation of what has been suspected for a while now: when talking about stabilizing Libya, which is the top problem for Italian national interests and is tied to the refugee crisis – and to energy sources as well, – Italy can’t county on the US.
Let’s go only a few hours back. The morning of Thursday, April 20th, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, Gentiloni repeated what was a chant for all Italian governments that alternated at Palazzo Chigi in the last four years: Libya can’t stay in this chaos, we need to stabilize it, instead of fragmenting it, and whoever thinks about dividing it is just making the situation even more dangerous. At the CSIS, the prime minister had wished that the White House would have understood the message. With such an unstable Libya, we risk to strengthen ISIS and leave Europe without defenses on the refugee crisis in the North-African country where human traffickers pile up the export “goods.”
After the bilateral dialogue, at the beginning of the press conference in the East Room, Trump started to speak about Italy and covering it in glory as a country that gave so much to America thanks to its “18 million Italian-Americans living in the United States.” It seemed that by using his soft spot for the “spectacular country that [he knows] really well,” Gentiloni convinced the President to comply with what Italy cares about the most at the moment: getting the USA’s promise to help stabilizing Libya and containing the expansion of Islamic fundamentalist movements and Russia in the Mediterranean, which is now clear to anyone who is willing to see it.
When a journalist from Radio Rai had the chance to ask a question, Trump’s friendly face towards Italy became a face of insult towards Gentiloni. Before the conference started, we learned from some officials from the embassy that it was already established who would ask the questions: two from the American journalists and two from the Italian journalists. Not only were the number of questions already established, but also who would ask them…We didn’t understand how the four journalists had been chosen and if the people who chose them knew what kind of questions they would have asked.
Prior to the questions, Trump loaded Italy with compliments: “We renew the deep ties of history and friendship that link together the American and the Italian peoples. That history traces its roots to the timeless contributions of Italy to civilization and human progress, stretching all the way back to Ancient Rome. Through the ages, your country has been a beacon of artistic and scientific achievement – and that continues today – from Venice to Florence, from Verdi to Pavarotti, a great friend of mine. These bonds of history and culture have only grown stronger as our two nations have become close partners, dear friends, and very vital allies.”
Gentiloni answered: “It was a productive meeting. It’s an honor to be here at the White House. Today, we renew a friendship and the common commitment against terrorism. We’ll be decisive in the stabilization process of Iraq after the military defeat of Daesh.”
Trump even praised Italy for being a trading partner that is on a “reciprocal” – repeating the word twice – relationship: “I love the word ‘reciprocal,’ because we don’t have too many reciprocal trading partnerships…”
The Summit of the two leaders was also influenced by the news coming from Paris in that same moment. “Our condolences from our country to the people of France. It looks like another terrorist attack. We have to be strong and we have to be vigilant,” said Trump. “I join President Trump’s words for what happened in Paris: condolences and closeness to the French people and government in this very delicate period for them, just three days before the elections,” commented Gentiloni.
The fight against terrorism is indeed at the heart of the talks between the two leaders. Gentiloni repeats what he said at the CSIS and defines “fundamental” the commitment, “even political,” of the USA to give stability to Libya and avoid the “division” of the country, which could be due to other countries’ influence as well. Trump recognizes Italy’s “leadership on seeking stabilization in Libya,” but when the Rai journalist asks Gentiloni what he expects from the USA in Libya and to Trump how much the USA are willing to be involved in the stabilization of Libya, that’s when Trump shocks Gentiloni and the entire Italian government delegation: “I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles.”
Is he saying it right then for the first time or did he already pre-announced it to Gentiloni one-on-one? Throughout the press conference, the Italian prime minster talks in a very clear and precise way, but now he appears fatigued and down in the dumps to us Italian journalists sitting in the first row. It’s just an impression, a sensation we have, not a certainty, but I believe that even Gentiloni felt embarrassed in front of that American president that denies his help on Libya in such a public way. Especially after Gentiloni asked for that help just a few moments ago and in the CSIS’s speech in the morning. And then, there is an “accident” that should mortify the prime minister, and that maybe – thankfully – he doesn’t realize what all the journalists in the room noticed. In fact, while Gentiloni keeps on speaking, Trump, who took his earpiece out to listen to the question on Europe asked before by another Italian journalist in English, does not put the earpiece back in for the final part of the conference. That means that when Gentiloni speaks in Italian, Trump, who alternates a smile with a harsh and challenging look, doesn’t understand a thing of what the prime minister is saying. It wasn’t for long and, yes, it was just for the last few minutes of the press conference, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. It was embarrassing and, above all, in clear contrast with the warm welcome Trump gave Gentiloni – at least in words – at the beginning of the press conference.
According to the Agenzia ANSA – the Italian National Associated Press Agency – we are reading while writing this article, some sources say that during the Summit in the Oval Office, the President of the United States asked some questions on Libya. In the final statement, he even says that Italy is indeed “a key partner in the fight against terrorism” and for “crucial efforts to deny ISIS a foothold in the Mediterranean.”
On his part, even Gentiloni got some things off his chest during the press conference. For instance, when answering the question of a colleague from Sky Italia, he stressed that Italy is not military present in Syria and it won’t be in the future. And, when Trump insisted that we should raise the NATO expenses to 2%, the Italian prime minster explains that Italy will do it progressively: “we made a commitment.” In 10 years, explains Gentiloni, our investments grew from 1.2 to 1.4%, spending 23.4 billion of Euros in 2014. But the prime minister goes to show that he intends to take his time: Italy will do it in its own time, not when Washington imposes it.
We saw the press conference from the first row, but we knew two hours before it started that we couldn’t even try to ask a question. The “chosen ones” were already designated. What a shame. We had a question ready for both Trump and Gentiloni, which was in theme with the bilateral dialogue. A question that was connected to the new foreign policies of the Trump’s administration and to our experience at the UN headquarters. The question we would have liked to ask was this: President Trump, Prime Minister Gentiloni, could you better explain what would the consequences be of the new “assertive”American foreign policy on the relationship between Italy and the United States? In her first day at the UN headquarters, the American Ambassador Nikki Haley explained to the journalists that the United States will keep a list with all the countries that don’t do what they promised they would…Therefore, President Trump and Prime Minister Gentiloni, do you already know what Italy should do and should not do, in order to avoid ending up on “Trump’s list,” the list of all the undisciplined allies to punish?
Is it possible that someone from the White House staff, in charge of preparing Gentiloni’s file before his visit, read this article on the internet?
Translated by Giulia Casati.