WASHINGTON — Just 10 days before a key meeting on Ukraine, President Donald Trump met, over the objections of his national security adviser, with one of the former Soviet republic’s most virulent critics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and heard a sharp assessment that bolstered his hostility toward the country, according to several people informed about the situation.
Trump’s conversation with Orban on May 13 exposed him to a harsh indictment of Ukraine at a time when his personal lawyer was pressing the new government in Kyiv to provide damaging information about Democrats. Trump’s suspicious view of Ukraine set the stage for events that led to the impeachment inquiry against him.
The visit by Orban, who is seen as an autocrat who has rolled back democracy, provoked a sharp dispute within the White House. John Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, and Fiona Hill, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Eurasian and Russian affairs, opposed a White House invitation for the Hungarian leader, according to the people briefed on the matter. But they were outmaneuvered by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who supported such a meeting.
As a result, Trump at a critical moment in the Ukraine saga sat down in the Oval Office with a European leader with a fiercely negative outlook on Ukraine that fortified opinions he had heard from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and from President Vladimir Putin of Russia repeatedly over the months and years.
Echoing Putin’s view, Orban has publicly accused Ukraine of oppressing its Hungarian minority and has cast his eye on a section of Ukraine with a heavy Hungarian population. His government has accused Ukraine of being “semi-fascist” and sought to block important meetings for Ukraine with the European Union and NATO.
Ten days after his meeting with Orban, Trump met on May 23 with several of his top advisers returning from the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The advisers, including Rick Perry, the energy secretary; Kurt D. Volker, then the special envoy for Ukraine; and Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, reassured Trump that Zelenskiy was a reformer who deserved U.S. support. But Trump expressed deep doubt, saying that Ukrainians were “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” during the 2016 presidential election.
Orban’s visit came up during testimony to House investigators last week by George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine policy. The meeting with Orban and a separate May 3 phone call between Trump and Putin are of intense interest to House investigators seeking to piece together the back story that led to the president’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats.
Kent testified behind closed doors that another government official had held the two episodes up to him as part of an explanation for Trump’s darkening views of Zelenskiy last spring, according to a person familiar with his testimony. A third factor cited to him was Giuliani’s influence.
Kent did not have firsthand knowledge of either discussion, and it was not clear if the person who cited them did either. But two other people briefed on the matter said in interviews that Orban used the opportunity to disparage Ukraine with the president. The Washington Post first reported on the meeting with Orban and the call with Putin.
It would not be surprising that Putin would fill Trump’s ear with negative impressions of Ukraine or Zelenskiy. Putin has long denied that Ukraine even deserved to be a separate nation, and he sent undercover forces into Crimea in 2014 to set the stage to annex the Ukrainian territory. Putin’s government has also armed Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, fomenting a civil war that has dragged on for five years.
But allowing Orban to add his voice to that chorus set off a fight inside the West Wing. Bolton and Hill believed that Orban did not deserve the honor of an Oval Office visit, which would be seen as a huge political coup for an autocratic leader ostracized by many of his peers in Europe.
Mulvaney, however, had come to respect Orban from his time as a member of Congress and his involvement with the International Catholic Legislators Network, according to an administration official close to the acting chief of staff. Orban has positioned himself as a champion of Christians in the Middle East, a position that earned him Mulvaney’s admiration, the official said.
Another official pushing for the Orban visit was David B. Cornstein, the United States ambassador to Hungary, who sidestepped the State Department to help set up a White House meeting, according to a person familiar with the matter. An 81-year-old jewelry magnate and longtime friend of Trump’s, Cornstein told The Atlantic this year that the president envied Orban. “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 said.
The Oval Office meeting with Trump took place just four days after Giuliani told The New York Times that he would travel to Ukraine to seek information that would be “very, very helpful to my client” and three days after Giuliani canceled the trip in response to the resulting criticism.
In moves that have disturbed democracy advocates and many U.S. and European officials, Orban’s government has targeted nongovernmental organizations, brought most of the news media under control of his allies, undermined the independent judiciary, altered the electoral process to favor his party and sought to drive out of the country an American-chartered university founded by billionaire George Soros.
Orban’s government has pressured Ukraine over what it says is discrimination and violence against ethnic Hungarians living in the western part of the country.
Orban’s efforts to undermine Ukraine in Europe drew enough concern among U.S. officials that Volker, while the State Department special envoy, visited Budapest and other places to meet with Hungarian officials to encourage them to talk with their counterparts in Kyiv to resolve their differences.
Mulvaney’s role in facilitating Orban’s visit adds to the picture of the acting chief of staff’s role in the Ukraine situation. It was Mulvaney who conveyed Trump’s order suspending $391 million in U.S. assistance to Ukraine at the same time the president was trying to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
At a briefing last week, Mulvaney denied that the aid was held up to force Ukraine to investigate Biden but confirmed that one reason it was frozen was to make sure Ukraine investigated any involvement with Democrats in the 2016 presidential campaign. After a resulting furor, Mulvaney then sought to take back his comments, denying any quid pro quo.
Bolton and Mulvaney also clashed when it became clear Mulvaney was facilitating Sondland’s role in pressing Ukraine. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton told Hill, according to her testimony to House investigators.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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