13 Apr

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

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World Politics


Trump’s ex-strategist advised Matteo Salvini ‘to target pontiff’s stance on plight of refugees’

Steve Bannon in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2018.

Steve Bannon in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2018. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon advised Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini to attack the pope over the issue of migration, according to sources close to the Italian far right.

During a meeting in Washington in April 2016, Bannon – who would within a few months take up his role as head of Trump’s presidential campaign – suggested the leader of Italy’s anti-immigration League party should start openly targeting Pope Francis, who has made the plight of refugees a cornerstone of his papacy.

“Bannon advised Salvini himself that the actual pope is a sort of enemy. He suggested for sure to attack, frontally,” said a senior League insider with knowledge of the meeting in an interview with the website SourceMaterial.

After the meeting, Salvini became more outspoken against the pope, claiming that conservatives in the Vatican were on his side. One tweet from Salvini’s account, in May 2016, said: “The pope says migrants are not a danger. Whatever!” On 6 May 2016, Salvini, after the pope’s plea for compassion towards migrants, stated: “Uncontrolled immigration, an organised and financed invasion, brings chaos and problems, not peace.”

Matteo Salvini, right, with the controversial T-shirt.

Matteo Salvini, right, with the controversial T-shirt. Photograph: @matteosalvinimi

The claims coincide with suggestions that Bannon’s pan-European populist project, the Movement, has stalled. Meanwhile, Salvini has announced that he wants to bring the far right from across Europe into an alliance. Last Monday in Milan, he unveiled his “vision of Europe for the next 50 years”, billing it as the launch of a new rightwing coalition for the European parliamentary elections on 23 May. Salvini unveiled his alliance only days after meeting Bannon in Rome in March. This led some to believe that Bannon has handpicked Salvini as the informal leader of Eurosceptic, populist forces in Europe.

The pair also met in Rome six months ago, prompting Mischaël Modrikamen, the Movement’s managing director, to tweet that Italy’s deputy prime minister “is in!”

Bannon, in an interview with NBC and SourceMaterial to be broadcast at 9pm eastern time in the US on Sundayon , also takes issue with the pope’s warnings over resurgent populist movements. “You can go around Europe and it’s [populism] catching fire and the pope is just dead wrong,” said Bannon.

Following the September 2016 meeting between Salvini and Bannon, the League leader was photographed holding up a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Benedict is my pope.”

The slogan refers to a Vatican version of the “birther” campaign waged by Trump against Barack Obama, claiming that Francis’s papacy is illegitimate and that his ultra-conservative predecessor Benedict XVI is in fact the true pontiff.

The League source also alleged that Salvini would have attacked the pope harder but was restrained by his own party, predominantly by Giancarlo Giorgetti, the deputy federal secretary of Lega Nord who is close to senior figures in the Vatican.

Pope Francis greets women in Morocco, as part of a trip aimed at showing solidarity with migrants at Europe’s door.

Pope Francis greets women in Morocco, as part of a trip aimed at showing solidarity with migrants at Europe’s door. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

“[After the Bannon meeting] Salvini moved very tough and said: ‘We have to attack the Vatican, but the other guy said wait.’ Salvini thinks by himself and acts by himself … so he started to act [for example, by appearing with the ‘Benedict is my Pope’ T-shirt],” said the source.

Bannon has steadily been building opposition to Francis through his Dignitatis Humanae Institute, based in a 13th-century mountaintop monastery not far from Rome.

In January 2017, Bannon became a patron of the institute, whose honorary president is Cardinal Raymond Burke, an ultra-conservative who believes organised networks of homosexuals are spreading a “gay agenda” in the Vatican.

The institute’s chairman is former Italian MP Luca Volontè, on trial for corruption for accepting bribes from Azerbaijan . He has denied all charges.

Among the institute’s trustees is one of the pope’s most outspoken critics, Austin Ruse, a former contributor to rightwing news website Breitbart. Ruse runs C-FAM, an anti-abortion group whose founder was prone to antisemitic rants about population control and which has been termed a hate group by human rights campaigners. Like Volontè, Ruse is an official of the World Congress of Families, a gathering of far-right, anti-gay Christian groups backed by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.

Other trustees include Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Conservative thinktank the Bow Group, who met Bannon in London last summer, alongside Raheem Kassam, the former UK editor of Breitbart. Bannon was a founding member of Breitbart’s board.

Bannon was invited by the Observer to respond but at the time of publication had not yet replied.

United States

  • Sanders decries ‘disgusting and dangerous’ attacks

  • Buttigieg: ‘Threats against Omar make clear what is at stake’

Omar ‘will not back down to Trump’s racism and hate’, said Bernie Sanders.

Omar ‘will not back down to Trump’s racism and hate’, said Bernie Sanders. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Democrats including leading candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination have fiercely condemned Donald Trump and other Republicans’ growing efforts to smear the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and urged other party leaders to do the same.

Attacks labeling one of two Muslim women in Congress as unpatriotic are “dangerous” and risk “inciting violence”, prominent Democrats said on Friday.

Just last week, a Trump supporter in upstate New York was charged with threatening to kill Omar. Trump escalated attacks on Omar on Friday, tweeting “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!” with a video that was edited to suggest Omar was dismissive of the September 11 attacks.

The video pulls a snippet of a speech last month to the Council on American-Islamic Relations in which Omar discussed the problem of Islamophobia, describing “the discomfort of being a second-class citizen” as a Muslim in America. After the September 11 attacks, she said, advocates “recognized that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties”.

The president is inciting violence against a congresswoman – and an entire group of Americans based on their religion

Elizabeth Warren

Two of the most progressive candidates for the 2020 nomination called on the party to condemn the president’s tweet and other such attacks. Senator Bernie Sanders called attacks on Omar “disgusting and dangerous” and said Omar would not “back down to Trump’s racism and hate, and neither will we”.

Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter: “The president is inciting violence against a sitting congresswoman – and an entire group of Americans based on their religion. It’s disgusting. It’s shameful. And any elected leader who refuses to condemn it shares responsibility for it.”

In his own tweets Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana who has surged in the polls, said: “After 9/11 we all said we were changed. That we were stronger and more united. That’s what ‘never forget’ was about. Now, a president uses that dark day to incite his base against a member of Congress, as if for sport. As if we learned nothing that day about the workings of hate.”

After mentioning his own service in the wars arising from 9/11, he added: “The president today made America smaller. It is not enough to condemn him; we must model something better. The threats against the life of [Omar] make clear what is at stake if we fail to to do this, and to beat back hate in all all its forms.”

Other candidates also posted messages of support for Omar and disapproval of the president. Former San Antonio mayor and Hud secretary Julián Castro said he was “grateful for [Omar’s] courage and leadership and I stand with her – and with others targeted by the President’s anti-Muslim rhetoric”. The former congressman Beto O’Rourke said: “We are stronger than this president’s hatred and Islamophobia. Do not let him drive us apart or make us afraid.”

Rightwing critics have used an edited clip of the “some people did something” comment to falsely claim Omar does not believe September 11 was a terrorist attack, that she downplayed or demeaned the seriousness of the attack, and that she is un-American or not loyal to the US.

Fox News and the New York Post, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, have devoted high-profile coverage to the misleading claims, including a Post cover with her quote and an image of the World Trade Center towers in flames. Congressman Dan Crenshaw shared a tweet critical of Omar which took her words out of context; party chair Ronna McDaniel also attacked the congresswoman.

Omar and others have called such smears a “dangerous incitement” to violence. Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim American woman in Congress, was the first on Friday to call on Democrats to “speak up”.

“Enough is enough,” she wrote. “No more silence, with NY Post and now Trump taking Ilhan’s words out of context to incite violence toward her, it’s time for more Dems to speak up. Clearly the GOP is fine with this shameful stunt, but we cannot stand by.”

The New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Tlaib in calling for Democrats to “speak out”.

“[Omar’s] ife is in danger,” she said. “For our colleagues to be silent is to be complicit in the outright, dangerous targeting of a member of Congress.”

Congressional Democratic leadership and some freshmen lawmakers have disagreed over how to respond to Republican attacks on Omar. Last month, Omar apologized “unequivocally” after suggesting US support for Israel was fueled by political donations from a lobby group, comments that were criticized by Democratic leaders for invoking antisemitic tropes.

Trump’s tweet on Friday came less than a month after a major white supremacist terror attack targeting Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand.

The president’s own comments and falsehoods about September 11 have long attracted criticism.

He has repeated false claims about “thousands and thousands of” Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attack on the day itself; his business received money meant for small businesses affected by the attack, even though his businesses were not; he has claimed to have helped clear rubble from the attack site, a claim for which evidence does not exist; he has said he watched people jump from the World Trade Center towers from his apartment at Trump Tower, four miles away, which would not be possible.

Perhaps most famously, in an interview just hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, part of attacks in which 2,977 people were killed, Trump described his shock and disbelief. Then he added a comment that left the journalists interviewing him “stunned”.

Trump, claimed, falsely, that one of his own buildings had been “the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan”, after the World Trade Center.

“And now it’s the tallest,” he said.

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