When talk emerged last autumn of a “Trump of the Tropics” running for president in Brazil, the actual US President Donald Trump took keen interest.
On Tuesday, the man who adopted Trump’s combative persona – in person and on Twitter – brought his fawning to the White House, where he decried “fake news” and predicted Trump’s re-election during his first official visit overseas.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sat for chummy bilateral talks with Trump that illustrated what White House officials hope is a budding partnership between the Western hemisphere’s two largest economies.
For now, it’s a camaraderie based more in shared tactics, populist (and, in Bolsonaro’s case, misogynistic and homophobic) rhetoric and flattery than any particular issue, though Trump said trade, security issues and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela were on the agenda for talks.
“I think there was a lot of hostility with other presidents,” Trump said in the Oval Office as the visit kicked off. “There’s zero hostility with me.”
There certainly wasn’t any hostility later in a sun-dappled Rose Garden, where the two men went to lengths to demonstrate their budding partnership during a joint news conference.
“It was an incredible feat,” Trump said of Bolsonaro’s election victory in October. “The end result was something the whole world was talking about.”
His counterpart reciprocated by predicting Trump’s re-election next year – Trump responded with a smile and a wave of feigned modesty – and by underscoring his commitment to conservative values.
Brazil and the US, Bolsonaro said, share a “respect to traditional and family lifestyles, respect to God, our creator, against the gender ideology of the politically correct attitudes and fake news.”
Trump later said he was “proud” to hear Bolsonaro adopt his hostile stance toward the news media.
Entering talks, Brazil hoped to see itself elevated to “major non-NATO ally” status by the Trump administration, a major step that would help it purchase military equipment.
Trump affirmed that was in order during the afternoon news conference – and even said the country could eventually join NATO itself, though it is not situated in the North Atlantic region.
“We have to talk to a lot of people, but maybe a NATO ally,” Trump speculated.
Though important bilateral issues were discussed, including the devolving situation in Venezuela, the most closely watched dynamic of Tuesday’s visit was the interpersonal relationship of the two men, who have spoken on the phone but had not yet met in person. Trump phoned Bolsonaro within hours of him being declared the winner of October’s election, during which he espoused loud pro-America – and pro-Trump – views.
That’s something of a rarity in Latin America or most other places, and Trump took notice, according to the senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the visit.
“Somebody said it reminded them a little bit of our campaign,” he said of Bolsonaro’s effort, “which I’m honored by.”
In a world of perceived foes, Trump has often looked to leaders who mimic his own brashness and disregard for political norms as allies. At times that has meant cultivating close ties to strongmen or dictators. At others it means closely aligning with newly elected leaders, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France (though Trump’s onetime friendly relationship with Macron has since soured).
Bolsonaro, whose nickname Trump happily relayed to friends and aides, appears to fit both bills.
“Up here, maybe we’ll call President Trump the Bolsonaro of North America,” national security adviser John Bolton told Brazil’s Globo television ahead of the visit.
The conviviality was cemented when the men exchanged soccer jerseys from their country’s respective national teams.
“I still remember Pelé and others,” Trump mused, referencing the retired player hailed as one of the greatest ever to play the sport.
The two men have also both taken advice from Steve Bannon, the former White House senior adviser who broke with Trump after leaving the White House in 2017. Bannon had dinner with Bolsonaro in Washington this week as part of a larger embassy event. Trump has not repaired his relationship with Bannon after a bitter split, people familiar with the two men say.
His trip to Washington was Bolsonaro’s first overseas bilateral visit, an honor White House officials say illustrates the new president’s commitment to fostering US ties. That’s a change from the past.
“Even the friendliest of Brazilian governments was never that friendly,” one administration official said.
The two were slated to work toward creating a “north-south axis” between the US and Brazil on economic issues as the two largest economies in the western hemisphere, the official said. That also includes steps that would allow US commercial space launches from a site in Brazil and increased trade between the two countries.
The US also hopes to rely on Brazil’s still-existent relationship with the Venezuelan military to apply pressure on leader Nicolas Maduro to relinquish power.
“I know exactly what I want to happen in Venezuela,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday. “All options are on the table. It’s a shame what’s happening in Venezuela, the death and the destruction and the hunger.”