Secretary of State Michael Pompeo kicked off a visit to Europe with talks that focused on Italian concerns at the prospect of new U.S. tariffs, just as the top American diplomat was drawn deeper into an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Pompeo met Tuesday with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at his official residence in Rome, on the first of a three-day visit to the capital that will also take him to the Vatican for a private audience with Pope Francis.
Conte and Pompeo agreed on the need to strengthen their countries’ trade relations, focusing on issues of industrial cooperation and tariffs, according to a statement sent by the prime minister’s office. They also discussed strategic relations with Russia and China, and agreed on the need to work together for a political solution in Libya, the statement said.
Conte is concerned that Italian products from food to cars could be hit hard by tariffs on nearly $8 billion of European goods that the U.S. is expected to impose as soon as this month, in retaliation for European Union aid for plane-maker Airbus SE. The EU has vowed to retaliate.
Pompeo told Conte he was not directly responsible for the tariffs issue, but added that he understood such concerns, Italian Newswire Ansa reported.
The tariffs issue marred even the handshake between Pompeo and Conte, when a journalist from a satirical television show gave Pompeo a bag with a large wedge of 30-month-old Parmesan cheese. Pompeo kept smiling as Conte remonstrated with the journalist, telling her to let him do his job as premier. A security official then pushed the journalist away.
The talks between Pompeo and Conte also included China, with the U.S. concerned at Conte’s previous government volunteering for China’s global Belt & Road Infrastructure initiative, and Libya, with Conte urging the U.S. to play a greater role in seeking to stabilise the north African country. Italy needs a stable Libya to contain migrant flows to its coasts.
The European trip comes just as Pompeo, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr all became the focus of a House impeachment inquiry after details of the administration’s foreign contacts emerged earlier Monday.
Pompeo was among those listening in on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy when the American president urged an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, according to a person familiar with the matter. That conversation is central to the impeachment inquiry.
In a letter to three House committee chairmen published Tuesday, Pompeo rejected congressional efforts to take testimony from five State Department officials starting Wednesday, calling the proposed depositions an attempt to “intimidate, bully, & treat improperly” his employees.
Pompeo is expected to speak to reporters alongside Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio on Wednesday. After leaving Italy, Pompeo will continue on to Montenegro, North Macedonia and Greece.