Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is widely accused of undermining his country’s democratic institutions, is scheduled to meet President Trump on Monday, the latest authoritarian leader to get a White House invitation.
Although Hungary is a European Union member and a NATO ally, Orban has become notorious for his attacks on the media, academia, the judiciary and other democratic institutions since he became prime minister in 2010.
“He’s really hollowed out the democratic underpinnings of Hungary and is seeking to do so across Europe,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
Partly as a result, Orban’s White House visit sparked discontent on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and 10 other House Democrats called for the White House to cancel the planned meeting.
In the Senate, senior Republicans and Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee urged Trump in a letter to express concern to Orban about Hungary’s “downward democratic trajectory.”
Trump has nurtured friendly relationships with an array of global strongmen, including Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Orban, arguably the most influential nationalist-populist leader in Europe, embraces a nativist agenda that gives him special affinity with Trump.
In 2015, when Europe struggled with an influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, he likened migrants to rapists and terrorists, echoing Trump’s harsh rhetoric about migrants on the U.S. southern border.
Orban’s harsh depictions of Muslims, whom he calls a threat to “Christian European culture,” are part of a political agenda that he calls “illiberal democracy,” one in which elections are held but traditional liberties erode.
Orban made no secret of his wish to visit the White House after being snubbed by President Obama, who never even granted him a phone call. In mid-2016, Orban became the first European head of state to endorse Trump’s candidacy.
Trump in turn has praised the Hungarian leader even as Orban has subverted legal checks and balances and enriched his inner circle. The White House defends Trump’s engagement with Orban, arguing that periodic scolding by the Obama administration did little to dissuade Orban from anti-democratic moves.
On Monday, Trump and Orban will discuss ways to “deepen cooperation on a range of issues, including trade, energy and cyber-security,” according to the White House.
Foreign policy analysts say Orban’s Hungary has become a target for Russian influence inside the NATO military alliance because his nationalist-fueled views are at odds with Europe’s dim view of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
The Kremlin sees “lots of opportunities” for influencing institutions in Hungary, especially in finance, energy and law enforcement, said Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Hungary recently has allowed Russia’s International Investment Bank to open in Budapest even though its director has known ties to Russian intelligence.
And last year, Hungary rejected a request from Washington to extradite a pair of suspected Russian arms dealers, instead sending them back to Moscow to stand trial. That move drew criticism from the State Department.
“Orban is really at the front of an autocratic revival in Europe and NATO,” said Brands. He sees Trump “as an ideological fellow traveler.”
Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party is expected to perform strongly in the May 23-26 European elections. It has campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform although attempted migration to and via Hungary has dropped dramatically in recent years.
Hungary has 21 seats in the 751-member European Parliament, and polls suggest Orban’s conservative party may win up to 14.
Orban’s supporters will see his White House meeting “as an endorsement” by Trump, James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said by phone from London.
Orban appears a disruptor in the election at a time when traditional mainstream political parties are under threat by populist insurgents in several European countries.
Italy’s far-right leader, Matteo Salvini, for example, is seeking to assemble a Europe-wide political bloc built largely on anti-immigrant sentiment and skepticism toward the European Union.
In March, the Fidesz party was suspended from the center-right European People’s Party over his anti-democratic moves, including constitutional changes and curbing of judicial independence. The European People’s Party is likely to win the largest number of seats in the election.
But because it is not expected to win a majority, it will need to seek allies to control the chamber, which will allow it to influence Europe-wide policy for the five-year term. That may give Orban leverage over the larger party.
Although Hungary has received billions of euros in aid from the European Union, Orban is one of the bloc’s leading critics as it struggles with fallout from Brexit, Britain’s disorderly and delayed departure.
He shares that antipathy with Trump, who has slammed the European Union as a “foe” on trade, boosted Brexit as a way to reset trade relations with Europe, and rattled NATO by suggesting it is obsolete.
Last year, Hungary joined the U.S. and four other countries in voting against a global compact on migration, which was negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations and approved by 152 nations.
Like Trump, Orban is a fan of border barriers, erecting a formidable double fence topped with razor wire and bristling with sensors and watchtowers on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia.
And like Trump, he has few qualms about demonizing his opponents.
Orban has repeatedly attacked Hungarian-born George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who grew up under Nazi occupation. Soros battled anti-Semitism and false claims that Soros-funded groups supported unchecked immigration.
The campaign culminated in a drive to push the illustrious Soros-founded Central European University out of Hungary, a drive that appears on track to succeed.