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George Guido Lombardi at Mar-a-Lago. He considers himself a bridge between President Trump and his old friends and far-right ideological allies in Europe. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
George Guido Lombardi at Mar-a-Lago. He considers himself a bridge between President Trump and his old friends and far-right ideological allies in Europe. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

A Trump Tower Neighbor Is the Point Man for Europe’s Populists

PALM BEACH, Fla. — George Guido Lombardi spotted President Trump’s young son Barron alone on a couch playing a video game in the gaping and gilded living room of Mar-a-Lago, his father’s private oceanfront club in Palm Beach.

“What are you playing?” Mr. Lombardi asked as a Secret Service agent watched under dripping chandeliers and medieval Flemish tapestries. Barron, engrossed in his phone, answered politely. But as Mr. Lombardi pressed on about spring break plans, the 11-year-old made it clear that he was not terribly interested in talking to his father’s longtime Trump Tower neighbor.

The same cannot be said, however, of the populist, anti-establishment leaders in Europe, who seem to have identified the Italian as a potential access point to the Trump administration.

“I’m American to the extent I’m here 40 years,” he said in Italian-accented English. “But at the same time I understand Europe a lot and I understand what’s going on.”

What’s going on, he says, is that Mr. Trump has given hope to politicians trying to harness populist forces, often with the social media tools that Mr. Lombardi himself has used in his capacity as the administrator of Bikers for Trump and about 500 other pro-Trump Facebook groups.

But Mr. Lombardi’s apparent prominence shows that something else is going on. The election of Mr. Trump, a master self-promoter, has imbued members of his social circle with the perception of juice that comes with proximity to power.

Mr. Lombardi, a chief executive of plausible-sounding foundations (North Atlantic League) and practiced photo bomber of officials and second-string celebrities (Frank Stallone, Kenny G), is not letting the opportunity go to waste. He is now busy explaining the evils of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to international reporters, speaking on a panel in the Italian Parliament (“Trump has said on more than one occasion that he’d like to meet Putin”) and causing a global stir by escorting Ms. Le Pen to a Trump Tower cafe.

“It was kind of innocent,” Mr. Lombardi said of Ms. Le Pen’s January visit, as he sat next to a whirring Boca Freeze soft ice cream machine in the Mar-a-Lago beach house as Secret Service agents lounged outside, looking out over the Atlantic.

Ms. Le Pen, in America at his invitation, he said, had suggested a coffee in the lobby of Mr. Trump’s building, where he conceded, “there was always a remote possibility” of seeing the then president-elect. “I said, ‘Listen, Marine, you know there is all the media there,’” Mr. Lombardi recalled, saying Ms. Le Pen insisted no one would recognize her. “And sure enough: Bang.” (A spokesman for Ms. Le Pen did not return a call for comment.)

Born in Geneva, Mr. Lombardi has also introduced himself as Count de Canevaro and wears a gold ring bearing his family’s coat of arms. In the library at Mar-a-Lago he walked from a painting of Mr. Trump in tennis whites to a 1750 oil painting of Benedetto Saluzzo Della Manta, who he claimed came from the same region as a distant ancestor.

He moved as a child to Rome, where he said the riots of 1968 and the rampant communism of his university classmates prompted his departure to America. He arrived in his 20s, bummed around, married, had children, started a jewelry business, broke into real estate, divorced and met Gianna Lahainer at a National Italian American Foundation event.

Ms. Lahainer, a former office worker from Trieste who had married the real estate mogul Frank Lahainer, was already a friend and neighbor of Mr. Trump, having bought one of the first condos in Trump Tower. When Mr. Trump first considered buying Mar-a-Lago in 1985, she warned him about the noise pollution from plane traffic over the estate, prompting him to renegotiate the price.

Mr. Lahainer died in 1995 and in 2000, his widow, then 65, married Mr. Lombardi. The couple delighted in telling how she put her late husband on ice at a funeral home because she did not want to miss the social season. “Why should I wait?” she once told the Palm Beach chronicler Ronald Kessler.

Mr. Lombardi said that in reality his wife could not immediately procure permits to send her husband’s body back to his Italian birthplace, but the story amounted to “good advertising.”

While his second wife introduced him to Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago circle, Mr. Lombardi acted as an unofficial (“always unofficial”) representative in the United States of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, often called The Lega in Italy. He said he first met Ms. Le Pen in the early 1990s in Brussels through a friend in the European Parliament.

“I told her right away, ‘Marine, dump your dad. He is just a dead weight. And anyway you have to make a choice. You are either with the Jews or you are with the Muslims. You can’t be with both.’”

The two stayed in touch, and Mr. Lombardi took credit for arranging a meeting between her and the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, in 2011. (The Israeli ambassador later claimed the meeting was an accident.)

Mr. Lombardi expresses fondness for the Jewish people, “our curly friends,” he said referring to the orthodox party that had rented Mar-a-Lago out that afternoon. The specter of the Nazis fuels his preferred, and somewhat tortured, historical parallel.

He envisions the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin, as the champion of the spiritual descendants of World War II resistance fighters. “Le Pen, Geert, Lega, Grillo, all the resistance is fighting the Nazi Islamists,” he said. “Of course, Ms. Merkel — You are Jewish, aren’t you? Come on! She’s the one who brought in all these Muslims more than anybody else. Why? Because they never lost their bad habits.”

Despite his increased visibility on Italian television, Mr. Lombardi cuts a low profile in Italy. But he said Mr. Trump has leaned on his Italian expertise, inquiring once about Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, because, Mr. Lombardi said, Mr. Trump was intrigued by a “billionaire who became a politician.” Mr. Lombardi said on a panel in the Italian Parliament last year that Mr. Trump invited Mr. Berlusconi to America last Christmas, but received no reply.

When it came to Italy, though, Mr. Trump’s interest centered on showing the innocence of Amanda Knox, an American college student accused of murder in Perugia. Mr. Trump often spoke out and posted on Twitter in support of Ms. Knox, and asked Mr. Lombardi to look into her case during a trip to Italy. Now, Mr. Lombardi said, the president is “very upset” with the ingratitude of Ms. Knox, who supported Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Lombardi wanted to be of service to Mr. Trump again when he ran for president. The day after Mr. Trump declared his candidacy, Mr. Lombardi asked his neighbor if he really intended to run and then offered to organize support for him on social media.

Mr. Trump assented and Mr. Lombardi, who had no professional social media experience, began setting up a network of Facebook groups to organize support for Mr. Trump and antagonism toward Mrs. Clinton. He said he received many appeals to be an administrator of Facebook groups.

Congressional investigators are examining whether Mr. Trump’s supporters coordinated with Russians to promote stories that helped Mr. Trump. Mr. Lombardi said he had no relationship with Russia and dismissed any suggestion that his groups passed around stories pushed by Moscow-affiliated news media outlets or web robots. “I’m not a troll,” he said.

Instead, Mr. Lombardi expressed pride in his social media work. As Barron, shadowed by the Secret Service agent, kicked a soccer ball with a couple of children on a nearby lawn, Mr. Lombardi scrolled through hundreds of Facebook groups on his phone, including an icon that read, in Italian, “Friends of Putin’s Russia.” (“They ask me if I wanted to be an administrator,” he explained.) Then Mr. Lombardi dragged the screen to an icon he particularly liked.

“People Front for the Liberation of Europe. This one I created it. That’s my group. Sounds like me, no?” he said, listing the European anti-establishment leaders the group promoted. “All my friends.”

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