AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump is threatening to shut down the federal government this fall unless Congress approves more funding for his controversial border wall. In a White House news conference this afternoon, Trump said the U.S. needs beefed-up border security along with big changes in the immigration system.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Personally, if we don't get border security after many, many years of talk within the United States, I would have no problem doing a shutdown. It's time we had proper border security.
CHANG: The president spoke after a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has also taken a hard line when it comes to immigration. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ailsa.
CHANG: So Trump described the Italian leader as his new friend. How close are these two guys when it comes to border security?
HORSLEY: Both Trump and Conte were carried into office at least in part by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Italy of course is wrestling with a historic surge in refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. We have seen nothing like that here in the United States where the number of illegal border crossings was actually way down even before Trump came into office.
But both Trump and Conte have benefited from a populist pushback against immigration. Trump of course campaigned on a platform of tough border enforcement and that border wall. And this afternoon, he reiterated that threat he made over the weekend via Twitter to shut down the government if necessary if Congress doesn't fund the wall and pass the other changes he wants on immigration policy.
CHANG: Now, the president has made similar threats in the past. How serious is this threat?
HORSLEY: When he was pressed by a reporter, Trump acknowledged that there is no red line for him and that everything is negotiable. Frankly, this tough talk on immigration may be more a way to rally the base than a serious threat and something he would actually go through with. Even though Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate, they have been unable to come anywhere close to passing the kind of immigration overhaul that the president wants. And the last thing that GOP leaders want is a government shutdown in early October, which would be just...
HORSLEY: ...Weeks before the midterm elections.
HORSLEY: Some lawmakers were pretty vocal about that this weekend. And just this afternoon, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his goal is to keep the government funded in a timely, orderly manner.
CHANG: This is the first time - right? - Trump and Conte have met at the White House. But they've been together at previous international summits. And they were asked about that. What did they have to say about their previous meetings?
HORSLEY: They talked about that contentious NATO meeting in Brussels earlier this month. And the president once again took credit for pressing the NATO allies to boost spending on their own defense.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: NATO was essentially going out of business 'cause people weren't paying. And it was going down, down, down. You just have to look at the line. I came along last year. And in a fairly nice tone, I said, you've got to pay. And they paid $44 billion more. And this year, I said it in a little bit stronger tone. And they're paying hundreds of billions of dollars more over the years.
HORSLEY: Now, that's an exaggeration. NATO was hardly going out of business before Trump came along. Most NATO countries were already boosting defense spending both in absolute terms and as a share of their GDP before he came into office. But Trump has certainly kept the pressure on to accelerate that. And, you know, the president was very critical during the NATO summit and again today about Germany's limited defense spending.
We should note Italy actually spends less of its economy on defense than Germany does. The president didn't mention that. He seems to have a soft spot for Conte, who was the only other G-7 leader to embrace his call for letting Russia back into the diplomatic club.
CHANG: And really quickly, speaking of Russia, the question of sanctions came up this afternoon. What did Trump say about that?
HORSLEY: He said economic sanctions against Russia should remain in place for the time being, and he defended his diplomatic outreach to Vladimir Putin. He also said he'd be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if necessary to discuss a replacement for the nuclear deal that he walked away from.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.