Trump’s Italian Pal Is Enjoying a Ride on Presidential Coattails

Shepherds in Sardinia hope he will help them avoid cheese tariffs.

Flavio Briatore appears on the TV show ‘Porta a Porta’ in Rome on Nov. 21, 2016.

Fabio Frustaci/Camera Press via Redux

Donald Trump’s friend of three decades, Flavio Briatore, had worn a lot of hats. Fugitive in the Caribbean. Convicted card cheat. Accused Formula 1 race-fixer. Companion to supermodels. Entrepreneur in sport, fashion and nightclubs.

What did Trump make of that résumé? He made Briatore a television celebrity.

“When it came to choosing who was going to do The Apprentice in Italy,” Trump said in a promo for the 2012 spinoff, “There was only one person that I wanted. And that was Flavio.” Briatore even filmed his contest’s finale in Trump’s New York office, with Trump as a judge.

With Trump days away from his presidential inauguration, Briatore, 66, represents a social stratum in Trump world that stands apart from his business ties and partnerships: friends and confidants around the globe who have new-found bragging rights to proximity to power. As businesspeople known to be friendly with the incoming U.S. president, Briatore and his ilk may also profit.

A romp through Briatore’s jet-setting world—as seen through the lens of social media and ample exposure in the Italian press—shows a man enjoying a ride aboard presidential coattails.

Since the election, Briatore has turned himself into Trump’s face in Italy. In November, state-run RAI television turned to Briatore—with his mane of white hair, blue-tinted shades and customary combo of black T-shirt and suit jacket—as its expert on Trump’s prospects.

During the interview Briatore said his connections to Trump’s team included “one of my best friends,” hedge-fund billionaire Thomas Barrack, the head of the inauguration committee. Barrack has been a property owner on the Italian island of Sardinia, where Briatore originated his Billionaire nightclub chain. (Neither Briatore nor Trump responded to emailed requests to comment for this story.)

In December, Sardinia was also the setting for a potentially profitable development for the man who presents himself as Trump’s Italian ally. Briatore arrived to meet with shepherds, whose pecorino cheese he’s seeking to sell abroad. Advance coverage in the local press cited expectations that his Trump ties were an asset he brought to the venture.

“International markets will also be discussed, in particular in the U.S., which is very important for Sardinian products,” La Nuova Sardegna reported Dec. 1. “After the election to the White House of his friend and partner Donald Trump, who intends to raise tariffs for imports to the U.S., the shepherds expect the entrepreneur [Briatore] to directly intervene to avert any penalties on our national cheese.”

Such expectations among the cheesemakers could give Briatore an advantage in any deal with them. Yet neither Trump nor tariffs came up in coverage of the subsequent visit, which showed Briatore taking part in a tasting with a cheese expert he’d brought from the Eataly chain. Briatore played the part of hard-nosed businessman. “To me, cheese I don’t like,” he quipped in a video interview with L’Unione Sarda. He was there simply to lend a hand and promote the local produce, he said.

The locals seemed appreciative:

 

By Briatore’s account, he and Trump met almost 30 years ago, during a time when the young Italian was in New York opening Benetton franchises.

Briatore had left Italy after running into legal trouble in the early 1980s for participating in sham card games, for which he was charged and convicted. He took refuge in St. Thomas, in the British Virgin Islands, according to “Il Signor Billionaire,” a 2010 book about his business affairs. In 2010 the conviction was erased by a Turin court and Briatore paid damages to the victims, according to his website.

In 1989, Briatore parlayed his Benetton family connection to enter the world of car racing, taking command of the fashion family’s Formula 1 team. Among his triumphs was discovering Michael Schumacher, the German driver who would become the sport’s biggest star.

Over the ensuing years on the glitzy international circuit of fast cars and Mediterranean yachts, Briatore started his Billionaire club chain, dated model Naomi Campbell and sired a daughter with German-American model Heidi Klum.

Among his brushes with controversy came in 2009 when Formula 1’s ruling body accused Briatore, as Renault F1 manager, of fixing a 2008 race in Singapore by instructing a driver to fake an accident. The sport gave him a lifetime ban, which a Paris court later overturned. Briatore’s website contends the accusations were the result of moves he made to break away from the sport’s governing body and start a new championship.

Lately, Trump’s election has been a publicity bonanza for Briatore. In addition to state TV, he’s appeared on the cover of Sette, the main weekly magazine of Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

In the six-page interview he exhibited a casual familiarity with the president-elect, referring to him as “Donald.” “I’m seeing him Wednesday, in New York, at breakfast,” Briatore said. He didn’t exactly split an eggs Benedict with the president elect. Instead, it was a breakfast fundraiser in a Manhattan ballroom. But there was no lack of proximity to power. On Instagram he posted a selfie seated next to Trump confidant Barrack.

More such adventures for Trump’s Italian pal may be in the works. If he shows up, as expected, at the inauguration, Briatore will surely let his 221,000 Twitter followers and 272,000 Instagram devotees in on all the glamorous details.

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