White House defends Trump's controversial meeting with Orbán

WASHINGTON —The White House dismissed criticism from human rights activists and members of Congress concerned that President Trump’s Monday meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán represented a stamp of approval for the authoritarian leader.

“President Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Orbán is about affirming our alliance and defending the freedom and prosperity we enjoy as democracies. This visit is part of our overall strategy to reengage in Central Europe,” a senior Trump administration official told Yahoo News when asked if the meeting was an expression of support for Orbán’s anti-immigration agenda that has explicitly aimed at maintaining ethnic and religious purity in Hungary.

Trump briefly acknowledged the drama swirling around Orbán as they sat together in the Oval Office before a bank of reporters and cameras.

“Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe, “Trump said, adding, “Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK. That’s OK. You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe.”

The president added that hosting Orbán was a “great honor.”

While Hungary became a member of NATO in 1999, in more recent years the Central European country has received a cool reception in Washington. Hungary’s prime minister last visited the White House in 2005. Orbán met with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001 during his first stint as prime minister. He has not had a meeting with a U.S. president or vice president since being reelected in 2010 and launching efforts to curb the judiciary and quash the power of political rivals.

Orbán was largely shunned during the administration of President Barack Obama. In a series of tweets, Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama adviser, blasted Trump’s meeting with Orbán as contrary to America’s longstanding efforts to promote democracy abroad.

“Trump is not the leader of the free world. Incredibly damaging and dangerous to have a U.S. President using the power of his office to give momentum to authoritarians,” Rhodes wrote, adding, “There’s zero interest advanced by heaping praise on Orbán unless your foreign policy is to rollback democracy.”

Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit that advocates against violent, discriminatory and undemocratic policies, has accused Hungary of failing to “respect the rule of law” Sarah Margon, the group’s Washington director, told Yahoo News that Hungary is one of the countries she is “most concerned about” in Europe. She said Trump’s decision to allow Orbán into the White House was particularly alarming since it came as the Hungarian leader’s political party, Fidesz, is promoting a far-right alliance in the European parliamentary elections being held later this month.

“I think that it’s pretty clear that one of the things that Orbán really wants to get in a sense is the blessing of President Trump. … He got that,” Margon said, adding, “With the European parliamentary elections like a week away, even if it wasn’t intentional and even if it wasn’t explicit, there’s no question that President Trump is endorsing the ultranationalist conservative right agenda by supporting him like that at this particular time.”

President Trump and Viktor Orbán. President Trump and Viktor Orbán.
President Trump welcomes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

In March, Fidesz was suspended from the center-right European People’s Party, which leads the European Union’s parliamentary body, after Orbán’s group mounted an anti-immigration ad campaign that mocked European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. However, Orbán has suggested his party could be readmitted to the EPP if it performs well in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Orbán has also proposed an alliance between the EPP and far-right groups in the Parliament, including the Northern League, which is led by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Margon described Orbán’s efforts to influence the European Parliament as part of the Hungarian leader’s desire to promote his ideology abroad.

“The Fidesz Party would like to see a stronger Europe, but it is one that is more Christian, more anti-immigrant, more xenophobic, and less inclusive. It is, in my mind, a very nativist approach,” Margon said.

Orbán regularly touts his philosophy as “illiberal democracy.” Along with cracking down on political institutions, Orbán has violently blocked immigrants with measures including a barbed wire border barrier and detention camps. He has also cracked down on abortion and, in February, rolled out a “Family Protection Action Plan” that included incentives designed to encourage women to have more babies. Orbán framed that policy as an alternative to declining European birthrates “rather than immigration.”

“We need Hungarian children,” Orbán said.

The senior Trump administration official rejected the notion the meeting with Orbán was an expression of support for either Fidesz or a conservative alliance in the European Parliament elections.

“No, this meeting was focused on U.S.-Hungary bilateral issues and as our relationship as NATO allies,” the official said.

However, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief White House strategist, said the meeting sent a clear signal ahead of the European Parliament elections.

“Coming as it is 10 days from voting, the optics are great. Orbán and Salvini are the one-two punch for the populist nationalist sovereignty movement. Having Orbán on the world stage in the Oval Office sends a strong signal,” Bannon told Yahoo News.

Bannon has traveled extensively in Europe in support of right-wing nationalist-populist parties since leaving the White House in August 2017. A source close to Bannon said he met with Orbán twice in the past year. However, the source said Bannon did not push to get the prime minister a White House visit and that he believes the meeting came about thanks to the close friendship between László Szabó, Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S., and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Yahoo News asked the White House if Szabo had lobbied Trump and Pompeo for the meeting. Without directly addressing the question, the senior Trump administration official suggested the sit-down was part of a broader foreign policy strategy.

“Hungary is a NATO ally, and the United States government is committed to strengthening our alliance with the countries of Central Europe, including with Hungary, whom we have not hosted at the White House for 15 years. This is why the meeting came about,” the official said.

Orbán’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story. However, both he and Trump dismissed concerns about his record when a reporter asked about “democratic backsliding in Hungary” during their appearance in the Oval Office.

“Well, people have a lot of respect for this prime minister. He’s a respected man. And 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,” Trump said.

Orbán described his government as “from the people, by the people, for the people,” noting that it had been “elected by the Hungarian people several times.”

On May 10, a bipartisan group of four senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump ahead of Orbán’s visit expressing concerns about “Hungary’s downward democratic trajectory and the implications for U.S. interests in Central Europe.” It asked Trump to bring up these issues in a meeting with Orbán.

“We recognize that Hungary has an important security role in NATO. … We urge you, however, to not diminish the importance of democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest,” the senators wrote.

A readout released by the White House said that in their meeting Trump and Orbán “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 also indicated the pair talked about “unchecked global migration and to address China’s unfair trade and investment practices.”

And the senior official suggested the Trump administration might have a more complex posture towards Hungary in private than in public, where the two presidents appeared to be all smiles.

“The United States government does not shy away from raising concerns with our allies,” the senior administration official said. “We raise our concerns with NATO allies through diplomatic channels, rather than through the press.”

Additional reporting by Melissa Rossi.

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