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Trump Hosts Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro At White House


At least from the outside, it looked like a meeting of the minds at the White House today. President Trump hosted his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, who's sometimes been called the Trump of the tropics. They discussed Venezuela. And in a press conference afterwards, Trump suggested the U.S. could do more to force Venezuela's leader, Nicolas Maduro, from power.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We really haven't done the really tough sanctions yet. We can do the tough sanctions, and all options are open. So we may be doing that. But we haven't done the toughest of sanctions, as you know. We've done, I would say, right down the middle. But we can go a lot tougher if we need to do that.

CHANG: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House to talk about how this meeting went down. Hey, Mara.


CHANG: So did Trump and Bolsonaro come up with a plan on Venezuela?

LIASSON: Well, not one they were willing to share with us, although you heard the president talk about tougher sanctions. Of course, he's put sanctions on. Maduro's still there. And it's hard to think of an example of a dictatorship that's been forced out of power by sanctions. Military action, he said, was an option on the table, but no plans to use that. Bolsonaro's answer to this question was really interesting. He wrapped it in an effusive bit of praise for Trump, saying that during a debate in the 2016 campaign, Trump said he didn't want to reveal his strategy against ISIS because that would lose the element of surprise.

CHANG: Right. I imagine Trump must've liked Bolsonaro quoting him.


CHANG: So did it seem like the two leaders built some rapport?

LIASSON: Yes, they certainly have a rapport. Of course, as you said, Bolsonaro's nickname is Trump of the tropics. He really likes that nickname. Both of them are right-wing populists. Bolsonaro said today he ran his campaign against political correctness and fake news. Trump said he was very proud that Bolsonaro was using that epithet to bash the media.

But Bolsonaro is the first Latin-American leader in a very long time who is unabashedly pro-American. He ran on a promise to be the United States' best friend in South America and to have a great relationship with Trump. And it looks like they're off to a good start.

CHANG: Going back to that note about fake news, the president - he was asked today about accusations that social media platforms are biased against conservatives. What did he say to that?

LIASSON: Yeah, he was asked, actually, whether he wanted to make social media companies liable for the content shared on their platforms. And he talked in a vague way about anti-conservative bias on social media, even though he uses Twitter to communicate directly to his 59 million followers without any kind of censorship. But he said we have to get to the bottom of this. There's a stacked deck. It's a dangerous situation. It needs to be looked at. Now, in the past, he has talked about changing the libel laws so that he could sue media outlets that publish negative stories about him - what he calls fake news - but he hasn't moved to do that.

CHANG: OK. And there was some opportunity for the president today to get some 2020 messaging in to this press conference. Tell us a little bit about that.

LIASSON: You know, Trump has a reputation for being very improvisational, undisciplined, saying whatever he's thinking at the moment, tweeting out his grievances at all hours of the day and night. But he is very disciplined when it comes to branding his opponents and delivering an election year message. And today, in his opening remarks, he talked about how he and Bolsonaro both agree that this is the twilight hour of socialism in Latin America, referring to Venezuela. And then he segued to the hope that socialism is also having a twilight hour in our own country. The last thing we want, he said, in the U.S. is socialism. And of course, he has been working very hard to brand the Democrats as Venezuela-style socialists.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: They want government to own everything. And some Democrats, like Bernie Sanders and others, have said that they are happy to have the government replace the private health insurance industry, for example. But other Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren or Beto O'Rourke, have said they're proud capitalists. They believe in markets. So this is a big, legitimate debate inside the Democratic Party. And so far, most Democrats tell pollsters what they really want is a stronger, thicker social safety net, affordable health care and education. But they haven't really explained what they mean when they talk about socialism.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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