White House aides were reportedly so worried about President Donald Trump’s affinity for authoritarian leaders that they attempted to block his meeting with far-right Hungarian strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
A Washington Post report cited an anonymous former White House official who said aides were concerned that inviting Orban to Washington might legitimize a divisive leader who is unpopular with fellow European leaders due to his authoritarian tendencies and xenephobic—even anti-Semitic—rhetoric.
Trump gravitates towards controversial and authoritarian leaders, seemingly enjoying closer relationships with figures such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping than the leaders of America’s Western allies.
The blocking strategy was put in place from the start of Trump’s presidency, the former official told the Post. “Basically, everyone agreed—no Orban meeting,” they explained. “We were against it because [we] knew there was a good chance that Trump and Orban would bond and get along.”
But these efforts broke down earlier this year, the Post explained, as some officials left the White House and were replaced by others more sympathetic to Orban’s euroskeptic, anti-immigration, anti-free press and other far-right sentiments—among them acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Orban eventually visited the White House in May. His visit began with an hour-long meeting with Trump at which nobody took notes. After, the pair were joined by the Hungarian foreign minister and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Trump praised Orban at the meeting, telling reporters, “I know he’s a tough man but he’s a respected man.” He also suggested that the prime minister had “done the right thing, according to many people on immigration.”
Democrats Eliot Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee, and Marcy Kaptur co-chair of the Congressional Hungarian caucus, didn’t share Trump’s admiration for Orban. Before the May meeting, the pair released a joint statement that said Orban represents “so many things that are antithetical to core American values.”
They continued: “He has overseen a rollback of democracy in his country, used anti-Semitic and xenophobic tropes in his political messaging, and cozied up to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. He has also suppressed independent media and academic freedom in an effort to consolidate his increasingly autocratic rule.”
White House officials may have been right to be concerned about Orban’s influence. Trump’s conversations with the Hungarian prime minister and other regional leaders—including Russian President Vladimir Putin—apparently also informed his opinion of Ukraine as a corruption-riddled nation that tried to undermine his 2016 presidential campaign, the Post reported.
Trump’s perception reportedly influenced his decision to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter for alleged corruption. Revelations about these efforts eventually prompted the ongoing Democratic impeachment investigation into Trump.
Orban’s role was detailed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent at a closed-door session with House impeachment investigations last week, the Post explained. He said Trump’s conversations with Orban helped undermine the president‘s opinion of Zelenskiy in the lead up to the now-infamous July phone call.
Orban and his predecessors have accused Ukraine of persecuting the Hungarian-speaking minority living in the border region of Transcarpathia, for example by banning the teaching of minority languages in school beyond primary school.
Hungary has also been accused of illegally providing Hungarian passports to Ukrainian citizens living in border areas. Ukraine does not allow dual nationality, and the scandal led both nations to expel each other’s diplomats.
Meanwhile, right-wing groups on both sides of the frontier have been agitating for more extreme action, raising tensions further.
The two men could also be considered ideological adversaries, given Zelenskiy’s West-leaning, progressive, reformist zeal. Orban, by contrast, has often aligned himself with Putin and attempted to undermine European institutions and cooperation, particularly with regards to migration and press freedom.