WASHINGTON — 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 President Trump’s combative persona — in person and on Twitter — met his new friend during an official visit to the White House.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sat for chummy bilateral talks with President Trump, scheduled to be followed by a joint news conference, all illustrating 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 President Trump said trade, security issues and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela were on the agenda for talks.
Brazil also hopes to see itself elevated to “major non-NATO ally” status by the President Trump administration, a major step that could help it purchase military equipment.
President Trump hinted that was in order on Tuesday.
“We’re looking at it very strongly. We’re very inclined to do that,” he said as his meeting began in the Oval Office. “The relationship that we have now with Brazil has never been better.
“I think there was a lot of hostility with other presidents,” President Trump said. “There’s zero hostility with me.”
Though important bilateral issues were discussed, 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. President 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. President Trump took notice, according to the senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the visit.
Bolsonaro “ran one of the incredible campaigns,” President Trump said on Tuesday.
“Somebody said it reminded them a little bit of our campaign,” he said, “which I’m honored by.”
In a world of perceived foes, President 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 President 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,” President Trump mused, referencing the retired player hailed as one of the greatest ever to play the sport.
In addition to his praise of the President, Bolsonaro has adopted some of the President’s online habits, including on Twitter. He’s derided negative media coverage as “fake news.” And he’s shared the President’s combative attitude toward China.
The two men have also both taken advice from Steve Bannon, the former White House senior adviser who broke with President 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 be 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,” the 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,” President 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.”