(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office on Monday, disregarding bipartisan objections from Congress that the nationalist leader has taken steps to limit freedoms in his central European nation.
“People have a lot of respect for this prime minister,” Trump said. “He’s a respected man. I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man and he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”
While Orban has become the poster child of resurgent far-right groups in Europe, he’s a pariah to mainstream political parties. His Fidesz party was suspended by Europe’s biggest political family this year over his erosion of the rule of law and Hungary is currently undergoing a European Union probe for allegedly undermining democratic standards.
“We have some similar approaches,” Orban said of Trump. The Hungarian leader has campaigned against immigrants, declared Hungary an “illiberal” democracy and enacted crackdowns on the press and limits on elections and the judiciary.
“You look at some of the problems they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’ve done it a different way than the prime minister,” Trump said.
Orban was an early backer of Trump’s 2016 bid for president and his “America First” mantra. The Hungarian leader was invited to meet with the president because the U.S. seeks to steer the central European nation and NATO member away from Russia and China’s influence, White House officials said.
Orban has been in office since 2010 but never had a White House meeting with President Barack Obama. His visit Monday comes only after Trump met with the leaders of the other three former communist states in the Visegrad region – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
White House officials say the U.S. government has repeatedly raised governance concerns with Hungary. They say the visit is important as Trump seeks to pull Hungary back from recent alignments with Russia, reward members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that increase their commitments to defense, limit China’s global reach through 5G networks and sell U.S. weapons overseas.
But Trump didn’t mention any U.S. concerns about Orban’s administration to reporters.
“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,” the White House said in a statement about the meeting. “The president and the prime minister discussed how best to increase vigilance against unchecked global migration and to address China’s unfair trade and investment practices.”
Hungary has been in talks about purchasing military equipment from a U.S. supplier. During Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s February visit, Hungary confirmed it considering buying a U.S. medium-range air-defense system. The nation was also reported to have floated the idea of buying Lockheed Martin Corp. fighters once its lease of Swedish-made Gripen jets expires in 2026.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on the Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Trump to ask him to urge Orban to return to the democratic roots and values that defined Hungary’s post-Cold War relationship with the U.S. and Europe.
“Hungary has experienced a steady corrosion of freedom, the rule of law and quality of governance,” said the May 10 letter signed by Republicans James Risch of Idaho, the committee chairman, and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. The senators said they are “profoundly concerned” about the close relationship between Orban and Russia, which has allowed President Vladimir Putin’s government to evade U.S. sanctions and extraditions.
While recognizing Hungary’s security role in NATO, the senators urged Trump “to not diminish the importance of democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest.”
(Updates with White House statement in 10th paragraph.)
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