WASHINGTON – He’s been ostracized by his own neighbors in Europe for his anti-Semitic, white nationalist and authoritarian views, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán found love Monday at the White House from President Donald Trump.
“Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe,” Trump said during an Oval Office visit — among the highest privileges a foreign head of state can be afforded. “Thank you very much for being at the White House. Thank you very much. It’s a great honor.”
Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, refused a presidential meeting with Orbán because of his attacks on democratic institutions. In recent years, despite Hungary’s membership in NATO, Orban has also been cozying up to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who has been working to weaken democracies in Western Europe.
“Seems part of a clear trend to relate to anti-democratic, increasingly authoritarian members of the alliance ― Poland, Hungary ― while snubbing democratic leaders like Germany,” said Douglas Lute, a retired Army lieutenant general and a U.S. ambassador to NATO under Obama. Lute said he doubted the transatlantic military alliance had anything do to with why Orbán was invited. “Nothing NATO related.”
The White House press office did not respond to several queries from HuffPost about why Orbán, despite his views, had been invited for an official visit, complete with a welcome from Trump himself at the West Wing doors. On a White House conference call for reporters Friday, a senior administration official who spoke only on condition of anonymity said the administration has, at lower levels, expressed its opposition to Orbán’s policies.
“I have personally raised this with the Hungarians on multiple occasions, beginning, actually, in my very first week here at the NSC,” the official said, referring to the National Security Council. “I can assure you that all these issues are being well-covered with all of our Hungarian counterparts.”
Trump critics from both parties, meanwhile, argue that Orban was invited not despite his authoritarian, white-nationalist tendencies, but because of them.
“Orban would be in Trump’s Cabinet if he were an American,” said John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who ran former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. “Where do he and Trump disagree?”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign said Trump should be demanding that Orbán reverse his attacks on the nation’s courts and other institutions. “Unfortunately, given Trump’s habit of fawning praise for authoritarian leaders ― and Putin in particular ― we don’t have any confidence that he’ll be up to the task,” campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said.
Orbán has, in recent years, taken over much of the independent news media in Hungary, tried to stifle the judiciary and ramped up attacks against Jews and Muslim refugees. His refusal to accept refugees from the Syrian civil war, in fact, was a basis of his censure by the European Union for violating the group’s values.
His attacks on Budapest’s Central European University and its founder, billionaire Budapest-born financier George Soros, are popular among anti-Semitic white nationalists in the United States but have been rebuked almost universally otherwise, including by the United States government.
“Something we’re extremely concerned about is about the uptick of anti-Semitic statements, anti-Semitic attacks, and overall policies that we see across Europe and across many other countries at this particular junction. I think we’ve spoken up very strongly against that,” the senior Trump administration official said.
But while his government may be scolding Orbán behind the scenes, Trump had nothing but praise for him in Monday’s public remarks.
“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 after he was asked about Orbán’s attempts to weaken democratic institutions.
That admiration was confirmed by Trump’s own ambassador to Hungary in a recent Atlantic interview. “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,” David Cornstein told the magazine.
Indeed, Trump has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions with repeated attacks against undocumented immigrants, people seeking asylum and African American football players. His actions and words came to a boiling point in the days following a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester was killed and where marchers carrying torches chanted Nazi slogans. Trump said they there were “very fine people on both sides.”
“The leaders he admires the most are autocrats and thugs,” said Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “What a signal to the rest of the world.”