U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the White House on Monday, with the two populist leaders praising bilateral relations and matching viewpoints on a variety of issues. The meeting was greeted with dismay by critics, however, concerned over rule of law and security matters.
Orbán arrived at the White House in Washington D.C. at 2 p.m. Monday, where he was greeted by the U.S. president. Hungarian news wire MTI reported that the visit lasted significantly longer than originally planned, and began with a closed-door meeting that was also attended by Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjartó and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The two leaders then held a joint press conference, where Orbán noted that his first White House visit took place under President Bill Clintonʼs administration two decades ago, during his first term as prime minister.
“Iʼm very happy to be here again, and, may I say, to be young again,” Orbán said. “It was 20 years ago, first time here. Then, to discuss global political issues because so many changes are going on, and we have some similar approaches. And I would like to express that we are proud to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world.”
News network CNN noted that neither George W. Bush, who led the U.S. during the last two years of the first Orbán government, nor Barack Obama, U.S. president during the second and the first half of the third Orbán goverments, had opted to welcome the prime minister in the Oval Office. By contrast, Trump, whose political views fall much more in line with Orbánʼs, praised a number of measures introduced by the Hungarian leader.
“Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but thatʼs okay... Youʼve done a good job and youʼve kept your country safe,” said Trump, noting also that Orbán has “... been great with respect to Christian communities.”
Trump was dimissive of a question about perceived “democratic backsliding” in Hungary.
“Well, people have a lot of respect for this prime minister. Heʼs a respected man. And I know heʼs a tough man, but heʼs a respected man. And heʼs done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration,” said Trump.
Orbán responded to the question with reference to Abraham Lincolnʼs famous Gettysburg Address.
“From the people, by the people, for the people. This is the basis for the Hungarian government. So, itʼs a government which is elected by the Hungarian people several times, so we are happy to serve our nation,” Orbán said.
The prime minister then evaded a question about democratic reforms in Hungary with a single sentence.
“We have a new constitution accepted in 2011, and itʼs functioning well,” he said.
Speaking to Hungarian government-controlled public media afterwards, Orbán said the meeting had strengthened strategic economic, political and security ties between Hungary and the United States, MTI reported.
Trumpʼs invitation to Orbán proved controversial in some quarters in the U.S., with Democrat congressional critics drawing attention to what they perceived as the erosion of democratic institutions and authoritarian tendencies of Hungaryʼs government, as well as highlighting security concerns over its increasingly close ties with Russia and China.
In a letter to Trump issued on May 10, Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Co-Chair of the Congressional Hungarian Caucus, while acknowledging that Hungary is a NATO ally and that it is important for the U.S. to maintain a close relationship, called on the president to cancel the invitation to Orbán.
“Prime Minister Orbán represents so many things that are antithetical to core American values,” the letter said. “He has overseen a rollback of democracy in his country, used anti-Semitic and xenophobic tropes in his political messaging, and cozied up to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. He has also suppressed independent media and academic freedom in an effort to consolidate his increasingly autocratic rule. 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.”
The letter also drew attention to what it described as domestic and foreign policy objectives that run counter to American values and U.S. security interests.
“Prime Minister Orbán’s actions have also begun to compromise the security interests of the United States,” it read. “We are particularly concerned that the Hungarian government’s decision to host the headquarters of the International Investment Bank, widely regarded to be a lightly disguised front for Russian foreign intelligence and money laundering, and to provide the bank employees with diplomatic immunity, will create increased opportunities for Russian espionage and influence operations within a NATO member state.”