On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump hosted Hungarys far-right leader Viktor Orban and praised the authoritarian prime minister for the good job he was doing and for being, like Trump himself, a little bit controversial.
The Oval Office feting was a diplomatic coup for Orban and a culmination of a two-year effort to get the two nationalist, anti-immigration world leaders in the same room, glad-handing for the cameras.
Since at least last summer, President Trump had been telling those close to him that he wanted to invite Orban to the White House for an official visit, according to two people with knowledge of the comments. Trump had spoken to Orban by phone in June, during which he congratulated him on the formation of a new government. Afterwards, the president conveyed to his advisers how impressed and taken by Orban he was.
He and Orban had discussed a number of issues and foreign policy concerns. But one thing in particular appeared to have grabbed Trumps attention. Orban had noted Trumps amazing electoral college triumph over 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, according to a source with direct knowledge of Trumps account of the conversation.
That overt, targeted flattery was just one method that Orban and his team used to bring about Mondays meeting. The charm offensive was complemented by a more traditional Washington method: a lobbying campaign to help the Hungarian leader open proverbial doors in the nations capital.
Orban has been aided in those efforts by a group of hard-right Republican congressmen who have lobbied the administration to welcome him and pledged support for him in the face of international condemnation.
In January 2018, a group of 11 Republican congressmen sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and urged him to set up a meeting between the two leaders, arguing that Hungary is a natural ally for the U.S.
In most areas our Countries interests and philosophy are closely aligned, wrote the group of lawmakers, which included Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is a top Trump ally, and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a supporter of European nationalists who has approvingly retweeted Orbans anti-immigrant quotes. Other lawmakers who signed the letter include a trio of staunch Trump supporters, including Reps. Andy Harris (R-MD), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ).
Harris, a co-chair of Congress Hungarian Caucus, has said his father fought for the Hungarian army in World War II. In November 2018, after Hungary was formally punished by the European Union Parliament for anti-democratic measures, Harris went out of his way to praise Orban. He led a separate letter with 10 other Republican congressmen criticizing the E.U. for its punishment of Hungary for exercising its rights to sovereignty and national identity.
Harris office did not respond to request for comment. Meadows, who speaks regularly with the president, declined to comment on whether there had been any behind-the-scenes efforts by lawmakers to encourage Trump to bring Orban to the White House.
Hopefully, its just one of many meetings with a variety of foreign powers and heads of state that will serve our country well, Meadows told The Daily Beast on Monday.
But while those lawmakers encouraged an Orban-Trump summit, others on Capitol Hill have worried about the get-together. On May 10, the top-ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Trump to express concern about Hungarys downward democratic trajectory ahead of Orbans visit.
The senators pressed Trump to raise those issues during his sit-down with Orban. We urge you, they wrote, to not diminish the importance of democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest.
The White House did not return a request for comment as to whether those issues where, in fact, discussed. But critics of Orbans regime say that the mere act of hosting the meeting provided little benefit to Trump while helping to raise Orbans stature.
I think its a pretty big deal that the president is hosting Orban at the White House, said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of the nonprofit advocacy group Human Rights Watch. At a time when U.S. relations with the Germans and the French are rocky, to be inviting the Hungarian prime minister to the White House sends a very clear message about where President Trump is focused.
Since taking power in 2010, Orban has amassed a lengthy rap sheet that has made him a pariah within the E.U. and, at least in the last administration, the United States. During his presidency, Barack Obamadeclined to invite Orban to Washington.
While Hungary still holds elections, Orban has taken measures to stifle democracy and benefit his Fidesz Party, having rewritten the state constitution, reshaped the countrys judicial branch, and taken control of much of the countrys media.
At the same time, Orban has put xenophobia and chest-thumping Hungarian nationalism at the cornerstone of his political movement, openly calling it Christian democracy or even illiberal democracy. He has called refugees Muslim invaders and declared that Hungary was Europes last defense against what he called Islamization.
The nationalist visions of Orban and Trump have intersected before. Like Trump, Orban has erected fences along his countrys border in order to deter migrants. And while Trump has suggested that George Soros could be behind immigration spikes in America, Orban has launched a full scale attack on the Hungarian-American liberal philanthropist, often using anti-Semitic language to do so.
Orbans vision of a conservative, traditional nationalism has also meshed with the Trump administrations. In March, the Hungarian ambassador hosted a conference in Washington, titled Making Families Great Again, to promote Orbans plan to increase Hungarys birth rate. In attendance that day were White House advisers Mercedes Schlapp and Katy Talento, and prominent social conservative Tony Perkins.
The psychological profile with Trump is very clear, said Tommy Vietor, who worked as a spokesman for the Obama-era National Security Council. And thats true if youre an authoritarian leader systematically dismantling your democracy. If you look at the people whove been in there [in the Oval] lately, its been a real rogues gallery.
If meeting with a widely-criticized autocrat like Orban is a risk, experts like Margon say its a risk that carries limited upside for the U.S. given Hungarys recent drift toward U.S. rivals. Orban, she noted, has not proven himself to be strong allies of the U.S., citing the strongmans embrace of kindred spirits in Russia and China. In November 2018, for example, Hungary denied a Trump administration request to extradite two Russian arms dealers to stand trial in the U.S.,sending them instead back to Russia. And under Orbans leadership, Hungary has become the only E.U. member state to take part in Chinas Belt and Road Initiative, a sweeping bid at global influence through commerce and infrastructure investment.
Trump might want to bring Hungary back into the U.S. fold, but there is doubt over what he could make an offer that might make that happen. Hungary, said Margon, is positioned to get more out of this meeting than the U.S. is.