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Trade, security matters key issues for Trump, Italian leader

President Donald Trump greets Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni as he arrives at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Weeks before President Donald Trump's first official overseas trip, trade and security matters were top items of discussion in his meeting Thursday with the prime minister of Italy, one of the two European countries set to welcome Trump in May.

Talks with Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni were expected to address U.S. commitments to trade and military partnerships with European allies, as well as security concerns, including the Syrian civil war and Russia's role in the conflict.

Gentiloni has strongly criticized protectionist trade policies, such as those proposed by Trump's administration, that advocate shielding a country's domestic industries from foreign competition by taxing imports.

Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact he said was "a disaster." In addition, he said this week he would make "some very big changes" to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico or "we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all."

With Italy set to host a summit of the world's major industrial nations, Gentiloni can shape the agenda on behalf of other European leaders wary of Trump's position on some long-standing agreements.

Trump favors bilateral trade deals and has used trade as a tool for pressuring countries to do more on national security matters. That was evident most recently with his public statements promising China a "better" trade arrangement if Beijing cracks down on North Korea.

Italy has suffered sluggish economic growth and was a staunch backer of a proposed U.S.-European free trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration.

Trump plans to attend a NATO meeting in Belgium next month before the Group of Seven gathering in Italy. Much is uncertain in Europe, with Britain's decision to leave the European Union and the upcoming French presidential election — the first round of voting is Sunday.

Like Trump, anti-establishment French populist Marine Le Pen hopes for an electoral boost by seizing on voter disenchantment with politics as usual. The EU has been a constant target, and Le Pen has called for a referendum similar to last year's Brexit vote.

The G-7 comprises the U.S., Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan and Italy. Italy is also a member of NATO, the military alliance to which Trump says the U.S. contributes more than it receives.

The G-7 nations recently joined in urging Russia to pressure the Syrian government to end the civil war. They have blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad's military for a recent chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. The attack prompted Trump to launch missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

Italy said the U.S. strikes were "proportionate" given the "war crimes" committed by the Assad government.

Gentiloni, premier since December, was also expected to stress to Trump the need for burden-sharing in Europe's refugee crisis, given Italy's proximity to Libya, where large numbers of migrants take the risky voyage across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

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