ROME—“Immigrants are criminals!”—“Our interests first”—“What’s wrong with being friends with Russia?”
If the rhetoric coming out of Italy’s newly minted government sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just a day after being sworn in as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on Saturday, the far-right League party’s Matteo Salvini vowed to lock up migrants rescued at sea in closed detention centers, calling them “criminals” and “felons” and telling them their “free ride is over.” If it sounds an awful lot like what U.S. President Donald Trump says about Mexicans crossing into the United States, it could be because Salvini is a YUGE fan of the man who vows to make America great again.
Salvini was inspired when he visited Trump in Philadelphia in 2016 when the then-candidate reportedly said he “hopes this man is leader of Italy someday.” At the time, it seemed preposterous and Trump initially backpedaled from the statement after being told of Salvini’s far-right leanings. On Wednesday, Salvini’s populist coalition, forged with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, passed a confidence vote with a comfortable majority, meaning their mandate could last for the five-year term if they can avoid infighting.
The similarities between Salvini and Trump don’t stop with an anti-immigration stance. While Salvini was warning migrants in Sicily and tweeting to Italian-born Ghanaian footballer Mario Balotelli to “just follow the ball” and stop complaining about citizenship birth rights, Hungarian financier George Soros told a group of economists at the Festival of the Economy in northern Italy that he was “very worried” that Russia “influenced Italian elections.”
Soros suggested that the Russian government financially supported Salvini’s party, which continues to steadily climb in popularity after waging a powerful social-media campaign.
“I am very concerned about the proximity of the new coalition government to Russia,” Soros told the conference. “There is a close relationship between Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Putin. I do not know if Putin actually finances his party, but Italian public opinion has the right to know if Salvini is on Putin’s paycheck.”
Salvini has denied the claims that Putin owns him, telling an Italian radio station that his multiple trips to Moscow over the years were, much like his trip to Philadelphia during Trump’s campaign, to show his respect for a leader he admired. He also said that any support he received from the Russian leader amounted to nothing more than free advice.