Italy gets gold star on Libya

But Trump firm on NATO fees

Posted: April 21, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump greets Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni as he arrives Thursday at the West Wing of the White House.

WASHINGTON -- Just weeks before President Donald Trump takes his first official overseas trip, trade and security matters were top items of discussion during his meeting Thursday with the prime minister of Italy, one of the two European countries Trump plans to visit in May.

Standing beside Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at a White House news conference, Trump praised Italy's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and commended its efforts toward seeking stability in Libya. He also hailed the country's contributions to art and music, touting the late opera legend Luciano Pavarotti as "a great friend."

But Trump remained steadfast in his demands that European allies meet their financial obligations in their partnerships with the U.S. He urged Italy to address the refugee crisis through a policy that "seeks the eventual return of refugees to their home countries so they can help to rebuild their own nations."

Gentiloni, who has been Italy's premier since December, stressed the need for burden-sharing in the refugee crisis, given Italy's proximity to Libya, where large numbers of foreigners undertake a risky voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

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Trump was quick to dismiss the notion that the U.S. would get involved in Libya, saying, "I do not see a role in Libya."

"We have enough roles. We have a role everywhere," Trump said.

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The Group of Seven major industrialized nations recently joined in urging Russia to pressure the Syrian government to end the civil war in Syria. They have blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad's military for a recent chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. The use of chemicals in the attack prompted Trump to launch missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

Gentiloni noted Italy's and America's "common commitment against terrorism," which he said requires social and economic collaboration with Muslim communities in order to be effective.

With Italy set to host a G-7 summit next month, Gentiloni can shape the agenda on behalf of other European leaders wary of Trump's position on some long-standing agreements.

Gentiloni has strongly criticized protectionist trade policies, such as those proposed by Trump's administration, that advocate shielding a country's domestic industries from foreign competition by taxing imports.

Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that he called "a disaster." In addition, he said this week that he would make "some very big changes" to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, or "we are going to get rid of [the agreement] for once and for all."

Trump favors bilateral trade deals and has used trade as a tool for pressuring countries to do more on national security matters. That was evident most recently with his public statements promising China a "better" trade arrangement if Beijing cracks down on North Korea.

Italy has suffered sluggish economic growth and was a staunch backer of a proposed U.S.-European free trade agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama's administration.

Trump plans to attend a NATO meeting May 25 in Brussels before traveling to the G-7 gathering of representatives from the U.S., Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan and Italy. Much is uncertain in Europe, with Britain's decision to leave the European Union and the French presidential election -- for which the first round of voting is Sunday.

Like Trump, anti-establishment French populist Marine Le Pen hopes for an electoral boost by seizing on voter disenchantment with politics as usual. The EU has been a constant target, and Le Pen has called for a referendum similar to last year's vote in the United Kingdom.

At Thursday's news conference, Trump didn't specifically weigh in on the French election, nor would he say outright whether he supported countries staying in the EU. But he said a strong Europe is "very, very important" to the United States.

"We will help it be strong, and it's very much to everybody's advantage," Trump said.

Italy is also a member of NATO, the military alliance to which Trump says the U.S. contributes more than it receives.

Trump has called for all countries in the alliance to adhere to a threshold of contributing 2 percent of their gross domestic products to NATO. Italy's contribution is less than 1 percent.

Gentiloni said that despite budgetary limitations, "the commitment has been made" to meet the target.

"We are used to respecting our commitments," he said.

Trump's demand for increased contributions from NATO allies has been a consistent theme, as a candidate and as president. While he at times also had called the military alliance "obsolete," he has since embraced it as a bulwark of collective defense.

Only five of the alliance's 28 member countries met the 2 percent threshold in 2016. However, total defense spending by NATO members grew an estimated 3.8 percent in 2016, after declining from 2009-14.

Obama also had criticized NATO members for not meeting their defense spending obligations, although he didn't press the issue as much as Trump.

Also at Thursday's news conference, Trump declared that Iran is failing to fulfill the "spirit" of its nuclear deal with world powers.

Under the deal, brokered under the Obama administration, Iran agreed to roll back key aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from certain economic sanctions. Critics have said it's unfathomable that the U.S. would grant sanctions relief to Tehran even as it continues testing ballistic missiles, violating human rights and supporting extremist groups elsewhere in the Middle East.

As he often had during the presidential campaign, Trump ripped into the deal struck by Iran, the U.S. and other world powers in 2015, and said "it shouldn't have been signed." Yet he stopped short of saying whether the U.S. would stay in it.

"They are not living up to the spirit of the agreement, I can tell you that," Trump said of the Iranians, although he did not mention any specific violations. Earlier this week, the administration certified to Congress that Iran was complying -- at least technically -- with the terms of the deal, clearing the way for Iran to continue enjoying sanctions relief in the near term.

Trump hasn't given a timeline for when his administration's review of Iran policy -- including whether to stick with the deal -- will be complete. But the U.S. must decide next month whether to renew a waiver so that Iran can continue receiving sanctions relief.

Information for this article was contributed by Vivian Salama, Josh Lederman and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press; and by Toluse Olorunnipa and Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 04/21/2017