Donald Trump showered praise on Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for a “tremendous job” and shrugged off complaints that his White House visit represents a reward for the erosion of democracy in Hungary and Orbán’s close ties to the Kremlin.
Sitting alongside Orbán in the Oval Office, Trump declared it a “great honour” to host Orbán, who he claimed was “highly respected all over Europe”, particularly for his anti-immigration policies.
“You’re respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK,” Trump said. “You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe.”
Orbán said his government and the Trump administration were aligned on some global issues.
He said: “I would like to express that we are proud to stand together with United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help Christian communities all around the world.”
Trump quickly picked up on his visitor’s last claim, saying: “You have been great with respect to Christian communities, you have really put a block up. And we appreciate that very much” – an apparent reference to the barrier the government has erected along Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia.
The White House said Orbán visit was aimed and deepening US “re-engagement” in central Europe, and negotiating trade in arms and energy.
A White House readout after the meeting said: “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Nato alliance and to their democratic systems of government, which safeguard the freedom and cultivate the prosperity that the United States and Hungary enjoy.”
But the administration’s critics portrayed Orbán’s access to the Oval Office as the latest display of Trump’s preference for doing business with foreign strongmen, irrespective of their record on civil liberties.
“Orbán represents so many things that are antithetical to core American values,” a group of congressional Democrats, led by Eliot Engel, the head of the House foreign affairs committee, said in a letter to Trump that called for the visit to be canceled.
“He has overseen a rollback of democracy in his country, used antisemitic and xenophobic tropes in his political messaging, and cozied up to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
He has overseen a rollback of democracy, used antisemitic tropes in his political messaging, and cozied up to PutinEliot Engel
“It troubles us to see the president of our country, which has historically supported the protection and promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide, meeting with a man who so regularly disregards these values.”
Heather Conley, director of the Europe programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Orbán’s government has repeatedly thwarted US interests in the region: by cultivating a close relationship with Vladimir Putin; allowing the Russian International Investment Bank (widely viewed as an instrument of Russian intelligence) to set up headquarters in Budapest; refusing to extradite two suspected Russian arms dealers; and blocking Ukrainian talks with Nato because of Kiev’s language laws.
“Yet we reward this obstruction with the honor of an Oval Office meeting?” Conley wrote. “It is difficult to see how one can make US foreign policy great again when the United States incurs policy failure after policy failure; if anything, this is humiliating for the United States.”
The Trump administration has largely defended Orbán’s nationalism and his anti-immigrant policies.
“The appeal that he makes within his own domestic politics are not ones that resonate more broadly in the rest of Europe. He very much focuses on Hungary for Hungarians, and very specifically on Magyars. I think that’s pretty well known and pretty well documented,” a senior administration official said.
“If you’re talking about border management and questions about how you handle legal migration, a lot of these discussions have been perfectly sensible, frankly, with our Hungarian counterparts.”
Orbán has been frozen out from high-level contacts with the US for many years. His last visit to the White House was in 1998 to see Bill Clinton, while Mike Pompeo’s visit to Budapest in February was the first visit by a serving secretary of state to Hungary since 2011.
Zsolt Németh, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the Hungarian parliament and a long-standing political ally of Orbán, said in an interview in Budapest on Monday that under the Obama administration, senior officials “thought the job of the American state department was to educate Europe”.
He said: “This educative approach characteristic to the Obama administration is over.”
Németh noted the role of ambassador David Cornstein, a jewellery magnate and longstanding friend of Trump appointed to the post last year, in the restarting of friendly relations. Cornstein has dismayed many critics of Orbán with public declarations of support for the Hungarian government. “It’s very unfortunate that we’ve lost America,” said one western diplomat based in Budapest, about the new line taken under Cornstein.
Elements of the state department hierarchy have also been deeply unhappy with the new role pandering to Orbán. “He’s struggling with his own diplomats,” said Németh, of Cornstein’s attempts to build a friendly personal relationship with Orbán and restart bilateral relations. “We are trying to accommodate Hungarian foreign policy to the intentions of the president, not the state department,” he said.