Leaders of top world powers are competing for face time with President Trump this week as he makes his United Nations debut, but can the deputy ambassador of the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica secure a meeting?
“Oh yeah, we’re going to have lunch with them on Wednesday,” the diplomat, Paolo Zampolli, tells me while walking about the U.N. halls, waving and smiling to acquaintances. By “we” Zampolli means he and his wife, Amanda, nee Ungaro, a former model who now serves as Grenada’s U.N. ambassador. By “them” he means the president and first lady.
The couple is invited to a lunch for ambassadors hosted by the U.S. So it will not be a private affair because “while he’s here he’s busy,” Zampolli says. “I don’t need to see him at the U.N.,” he says, adding that he often discusses things with the president. He stresses that his relationship with Trump, going back 25 years, has nothing to do with his role as ambassador.
Trump once dismissively called the U.N. a “club for people to have a good time.” The image could well have been a reminiscence about his—and Zampolli’s—own past.
When Zampolli worked for the Trump Organization, both had their share of good times in New York’s fabulous club scene. In the 1990s, Zampolli’s girlfriend at the time and a Slovenian friend of hers from Zampolli’s modeling agency, Melania Knauss, went together to a party hosted by Zampolli at the Kit Kat Club.
It was there that Melania met her future husband. “Trump change my life,” says Zampolli, an only son and a scion to a wealthy Milan family who has made his way through the New York scene. It was Trump who got him going in real estate after a career in the model-agency business.
No wonder Zampolli can pop in like Zelig at events like Trump’s 2017 New Year’s Eve party or the Easter egg roll at the White House, where his family was photographed in the spring right next to Don and Melania.
Zampolli may have been a virtual Trump mini-me back in the day, but now he’s 47, Trump is the world’s most famous leader, and “this is a busy week,” Zampolli said Monday.
Trump’s busy day included a crucial phone call about the North Korean crisis with China’s Premier Xi Jinping, but his only face-to-face meetings were with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lobbied him to tweak the Iran nuclear deal, and French President Emmanuel Macron.
In the morning, Trump also delivered his first U.N. speech, talking about the promise the institution once had and about the need to reform it, in a session organized by Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Trump commended Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as a “fantastic” guy, and explained how he learned that the U.N. is valuable: Years ago, he said, he “saw an opportunity” and built Trump World Tower on 48th Street and First Avenue. Because the U.N. headquarters is across the street, he said, his investment “turned out to be such a successful project.”
Meanwhile, as Hurricane Maria threatened destruction on Dominica, Zampolli was running around meeting with representatives of neighboring countries and raising awareness of the tiny island’s plight. Zampolli is a dual citizen, holding American and Italian passports, but he is a partner in a $100 million project in Dominica, where he says that his Cabrits Resort Kempinski, an exclusive tourism destination, will open in 2019.
“We created 500 jobs, and that’s not nothing in a country of 70,000 people,” Zampolli says, explaining how he got to become a credentialed ambassador of a country where he is not a citizen. Some small nations like Dominica will confer the honor of ambassador on heavy donors even if they’re not citizens.
And the U.N. will have to accept the credentials, regardless. “If they send Mickey Mouse, I have to sign up Mickey Mouse,” says Santiago Villalpando, chief of the treaty section at the U.N. Office for Legal Affairs.
So Zampolli is a U.N. ambassador, a title that gives him access to the iconic Turtle Bay building and all the benefits that entails. “I’m here when I need to come, but my wife is here all the time,” he says. His wife, Amanda, has obtained Grenadan citizenship and, like him, is a full-fledged ambassador.
Zampolli’s U.N. projects may not have so far left a strong impression on Turtle Bay, where many people pitch many projects, small and big—including the perennial, and so far unsuccessful, “reform” effort.
But he says he can talk privately to the U.S. president—and that is more than even his native country’s leader, Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who arrives here Wednesday, can say.
As we know, Donald Trump listens to his friends, and Zampolli and he have been tight at least since that night at the Kit Kat Club when Melania appeared on the scene.