WASHINGTON — Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban has been widely accused of rolling back democracy, undermining press freedom, villainizing refugees and trampling over the independence of his country’s court system.
But to President Trump, he’s “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.” That's what Trump said Monday afternoon as he welcomed Orban to the Oval Office.
“You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe,” Trump continued. “He’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man.”
Orban’s visit caused heartburn on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill even before it happened, with both Republicans and Democrats calling on Trump to confront Orban about his clamp-down on democracy. Orban had been barred from the White House by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. The European Union’s biggest political faction, the European People’s Party, meanwhile, suspended Orban’s Fidesz party in March, citing its backsliding on democracy and the rule of law.
Trump, however, appeared more at ease next to Orban than he often has standing next to European democratic stalwarts from America’s traditional allies, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Perhaps they had more shared interests to discuss. Both men have made their hardline anti-immigration stance a signature issue. Orban has regularly attacked immigrants and asylum seekers and once referred to migration as “a poison.” Trump meanwhile has repeatedly described immigrants as "animals," drug dealers, rapists and murderers.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief and policy adviser, has even called Orban “Trump before Trump.”
Trump’s date with Orban Monday marks yet another example of his warm embrace of foreign leaders with despotic tendencies, a list that includes North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In Hungary’s case, Trump’s outreach is part of his administration's broader policy of reaching out to countries in Central Europe, with a stated goal of balancing Russian and Chinese global influence.
“The problem with that policy is that it has meant in practice turning a blind eye to a visible deterioration of quality of democracy and the rule of law,” said Dalibor Rohac, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning D.C. think tank. “Talking to someone like Viktor Orban is fine — even, I’d argue, receiving him in the White House — but it has to go hand in hand with holding him and his government to high standards and asking him tough questions.”
Yet Trump doesn’t seem to be holding Orban’s feet to the fire over his threats to democracy or the press. Rather, he’s found a lot to admire in Orban’s rule, David Cornstein, the jewelry magnate Trump appointed as ambassador to Hungary, said in a recent interview with The Atlantic.
“I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t,” Cornstein told Atlantic writer Franklin Foer, after being asked about Orban’s description of modern Hungary as an “illiberal democracy.”
A bipartisan group of senators including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida wrote a letter to Trump last week urging him to confront Orban about Hungary’s “downward democratic trajectory.”
“In recent years, democracy in Hungary has significantly eroded,” the senators wrote. “Under Orban, the election process has become less competitive and the judiciary is increasingly controlled by the state.”
Democrats in the House blasted Orban for using “anti-Semitic and xenophobic tropes in his political messaging,” and warned Trump that meeting Orban while failing to confront him on these issues would mean “effectively endorsing his deplorable actions.”
But Rohac said that nobody watching should hold their breath for Trump to push Orban on anything.
“There is no indication that the president or top echelons of the current administration are willing to press Orban on any of those issues,” he said.
Cover: President Donald Trump welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House in Washington, Monday, May 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)