When Donald Trump became president, Europe’s fiercest anti-immigration leader saw an opportunity to garner international legitimacy for his policies.
But for more than two years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — the only European Union government head to endorse Trump’s campaign in 2016 — failed to get an invitation to visit the White House, despite Trump hosting numerous European leaders. With no White House visit coming, the Hungarian government lobbied its case to lawmakers, the State Department and the White House. And changes in leadership at the State Department started opening some doors for the Hungarian government.
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Finally, on Monday, Trump will host Orbán in the White House, the first time a Hungarian prime minister has visited the White House since 2005.
The visit “clearly raises his profile,” said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has met with Orbán and his top aides several times.
“The Obama administration and the State Department completely shut out Orbán. He’s an individual who Trump has tracked very closely,” he added.
But it’s unclear how friendly Orbán’s welcome will be.
While Orbán’s restrictive immigration policies and skepticism about international institutions mirror Trump’s own rhetoric, the Hungarian leader has faced criticism from the European Union, the State Department and civil society groups, which argue that Orbán’s leadership has eroded democratic values. Orbán has been denounced for limiting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, targeting independent nongovernmental groups, encouraging racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies and cracking down on the Central European University, an institution founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
“We urge you to raise these issues in your meeting with the Prime Minister,” a bipartisan group of senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho), wrote in a letter sent last week to Trump.
And concerns about Chinese and Russian influence in Hungary — a NATO ally and EU member — are also expected to hang over the get-together.
As a result, White House advisers are cautioning Trump against a full embrace of Orbán, despite the president’s own affinity for the leader.
One senior White House official said that while “Hungary is a great ally,” that does not mean Trump is not “troubled” by Hungary’s democratic backsliding.
Still, the official added, Trump is “excited for that meeting. … He loves hosting foreign leaders at the White House.”
Hungary has worked hard to win over the Trump administration since the president’s surprise victory.
Former Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who lobbied for Hungary’s government until last summer, helped set up a congratulatory phone call between Trump and Orbán in the weeks after the 2016 presidential election. He then spent much of the next 18 months working to set up a White House meeting between the two leaders, he said in an interview.
“It was something I worked on consistently,” he said. “I think we made a lot of strides and put them in this position.”
Publicly, Orbán has heaped praise on Trump.
“We have enthusiastically applauded the president of the United States for thinking precisely as we do when he says ‘America First.’ We say the same: ‘Hungary first, and then everyone else,’” the Hungarian leader said in a 2017 speech.
In its early days, the Trump administration was split into three camps when it came to Hungary: officials who wanted to stick to America’s existing policy of opposing Orbán’s dismantling of independent institutions, advisers who did not care much about Hungary and some advisers who admired Orbán.
So Mack called, emailed and met with dozens of members of Congress as well as State Department officials, congressional staffers and experts at the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, according to disclosure filings. He also spoke to Bill Stepien, then the White House political director, and met with Andrea Thompson, who was Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser at the time.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), whom Mack lobbied, and 10 other lawmakers sent a letter to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to “organize appropriate high-level meetings between the leaders of our two countries in order to build mutual trust, reassure our ally of our support, and harmonize our approaches to our mutual goals.”
Mack made a point of reminding the people he lobbied that Orbán was the European leader most aligned with Trump, he said.
He also circulated four memos noting that Orbán was “the first and only European head of state to publicly endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States,” as well as dozens of emails promoting Hungary, including ones touting Orbán’s support for Israel, a key issue for Trump.
Hungary retains three Washington lobbying firms that are formally registered with the Department of Justice as representing a foreign government: Barnes & Thornburg, Munk Policy and Law and Policy Impact Communications. Hungary’s government has also funded Hungarian organizations in the U.S., some of which engage with Trump administration circles and conservative think tanks while not registering as foreign agents with the Department of Justice.
William Nixon, the chairman and chief executive of Policy Impact Communications, said Orbán’s White House visit was “the natural next step” after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s met with Orbán in Budapest in February.
“I don’t think the importance of this meeting can be overstated,” Nixon said.
“Coming after eight years of being largely ignored by the Obama administration, it is a welcome change,” he added.
Bannon said he believes the Trump administration started warming to Orbán because of the confluence of three things: the appointment of David Cornstein, a close Trump friend, as ambassador to Hungary; Pompeo taking the reins at the State Department; and the rising influence of China in Europe.
“Tillerson didn’t make any changes when he was there and State continued to block Orbán,” Bannon said, a pattern that has changed under Pompeo.
And Cornstein does not hide his view that the president is a fan of the Hungarian prime minister’s leadership style.
“I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t,” Cornstein told The Atlantic in a recent interview.
Ahead of the trip, Orbán framed the visit as a chance to discuss shared views on migration.
“One of the most important issues in our meeting will be how we can cooperate at international forums in the future in the fight against migration,” the Hungarian leader said in a radio interview.
In a call with reporters on Friday, a senior administration official agreed — to an extent.
“I think what we want to focus on with our Hungarian counterparts and with the prime minister — and as we actually have in many of the meetings — is how one tackles some of the broader issues,” the official said.
But the official stressed that most immigration and border management conversations between the U.S. and Hungary are occurring at lower levels. Monday’s meeting is more symbolic.
“The point of this meeting is simply just to reinforce the strategic relationship between allies, NATO allies of U.S. and Hungary — not necessarily just thrash out every issue on the bilateral agenda, which we have been doing constantly for the last two years,” the official said.
Elephants in the room: Beijing and Moscow
For American diplomats, the Washington visit is not necessarily a gesture of goodwill to Orbán.
The meeting is “a routine visit that was bound to happen sometime,” one State Department official said.
It is also a chance to press Hungary over the growing Chinese and Russian influence in Hungary.
“Concern over Russia is genuine,” the official added.
Hungary has perplexed allies by repeatedly vetoing high-level ministerial meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, ostensibly over a Ukrainian language law that negatively affects Hungarian-speaking communities in Ukraine. “We’ve been very troubled by that,” the senior administration official told reporters on Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is a frequent visitor to Budapest, one of the few places in the EU where he receives a warm welcome.
A State Department spokesperson said the administration is worried “Russia will continue to expand its malign influence in Hungary.”
The department is also warily eyeing Chinese investment in Hungarian infrastructure.
“The experience of states in the Asia-Pacific region shows that Beijing’s handshake sometimes comes with strings — strings that would leave Hungary indebted both economically and politically,” the spokesperson said.
However, “Hungary is a NATO ally,” the spokesperson added. “We do not agree on every issue, but we are committed to strengthening our partnership and achieving results on a wide range of important issues, including security and defense, energy security, trade and investment.”
There is also growing concern among experts about a potential uptick in Russian and Chinese intelligence activity in Hungary.
One former Hungarian government official told POLITICO that the main problem from a security perspective is that Budapest has opened the gates to Russian and Chinese influence to such a large extent that it has neither the ability nor the willingness to “at some level keep under control” the activities of Russian- and Chinese-state-owned companies in Hungary.
The former Hungarian government official is expecting Western intelligence agencies to become more active in Hungary as a result.
“If we cannot or do not want to fulfill these tasks, then someone else within the alliance will do it for us,” the official said. “But then we can’t sulk about it.”
During Orbán’s visit, American officials are expected to raise concerns about Chinese firm Huawei’s work on developing Hungary’s broadband network.
“My sense is this [visit] is not about President Trump loving Orbán,” said Ken Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute.
“Sure, we’ll have increased defense cooperation with Hungary, but the real subtext is likely China, on Orbán’s relations with the Chinese and trying to get greater cooperation on this issue,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Hungarian government declined to comment on American concerns regarding Hungary’s ties to Russia and China.
“The meeting between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has not taken place yet. We suggest that you get back to us after the meeting,” the spokesperson said.
Katie Galioto contributed to this report.