Seated beside Orban in the high-backed gold chairs he uses to receive foreign visitors, Trump said Orban has “done a tremendous job in so many ways” and has “kept his country safe.”
“Highly respected,” Trump continued. “Respected all over Europe. Probably like me a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”
Trump said the two would discuss trade and shared NATO concerns, but he did not publicly mention Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism, its human rights and free speech abuses or growing anti-Semitism.
A smile played around Orban’s lips as he watched the chaotic scene of reporters jostling and shouting questions amid a phalanx of photographers angling for position.
Speaking in fluent English, Orban thanked Trump for the invitation and noted the two-decade interval since his last trip to see a U.S. president. He said he and Trump have “similar approaches” to many global issues.
“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,” Orban said.
Trump responded in kind.
“You have been great with respect to Christian communities,” he said. “You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.”
In office for nine years this time and once before for four, Orban has morphed from a crusading anti-Soviet reformer embraced by President Bill Clinton to an increasingly autocratic figure who has erected a fence along his country’s southern border to keep out migrants and asylum seekers.
The Oval Office invitation is a coup for Orban, who has shrugged off his outcast status in Europe but is seeking a measure of rehabilitation ahead of elections to the European Parliament next month.
The Trump administration has largely shrugged off Orban’s anti-democratic actions and said that the invitation is less an embrace of a like-minded figure and more about heading off Orban’s drift toward U.S. competitors Russia and China.
The invitation was somewhat slow in coming, at least by Trump standards. Orban is the last Central European leader to get the nod, although he was the first foreign leader to endorse then-candidate Trump, in 2016.
Former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon once admiringly said that Orban was “Trump before Trump.”
Orban, 55, is the latest in a list of strongmen to get the one-on-one treatment at the White House. Other recent examples include the right-wing or autocratic leaders of Poland, Egypt, Brazil and Austria.
“It still remains rightly shocking to see Trump cozy up to authoritarian leaders,” said Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official who is now at the Brookings Institution. “The American president should be supporting democratic allies with shared values rather than autocrats who are actively undermining U.S. interests.”
Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, New York financier and Trump friend David Cornstein, told The Atlantic recently that Trump “would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t.”
A senior administration official told reporters Friday that Cornstein’s remark may have been “taken out of context” but did not offer detail on what the ambassador meant.
Cornstein also told the magazine that he did not expect that Orban’s targeting of an American university in Budapest founded by liberal Hungarian American donor George Soros would have much effect on U.S. relations with Hungary.
“I’m hopeful we can turn the page and move on to other subjects,” he said.
Orban has used familiar and veiled anti-Semitic references in attacking Soros as a “crafty” interloper who uses money to meddle in the country’s affairs, and he has sought to link Soros with Muslim and other migrants Orban says would overrun the country.
Countries that accept Syrian and other migrants are creating “mixed-race nations” and putting their history and traditions at risk, Orban said in a speech in February.
His political party was suspended from the right-wing People’s Party, its perch in the European Parliament, over its anti-democratic actions.
A bipartisan letter Friday from four members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rued “Hungary’s downward democratic trajectory and the implications for U.S. interests in Central Europe.”
Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump ally, was among the signers.
“We remain profoundly concerned about the close relationship between this NATO partner and Moscow,” the letter said.
Briefing reporters ahead of the visit, two Trump administration officials said the United States has put its concerns about the university, anti-Semitism and migration issues directly to Orban in other meetings, including lengthy discussions with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The officials said the visit is part of a broader outreach to Central and Eastern Europe, rather than a personal reward for Orban.
Main items on the agenda included U.S. concerns about European expansion of Chinese tech firm Huawei, European energy security and the potential for increased weapons sales to Hungary, the officials said.
“The point of this meeting is simply just to reinforce the strategic relationship between allies, NATO allies of U.S. and Hungary,” one official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the session, “not necessarily just thrash out every issue on the bilateral agenda, which we have been doing constantly for the last two years.”
Trump didn’t seem interested in thrashing out any contentious issues with Orban — at least not publicly.
Toward the end of the Oval Office question-and-answer session, Trump was asked whether he is concerned about “democratic backsliding” in Hungary.
“Well, people have a lot of respect for this prime minister,” Trump replied. “He’s a respected man. 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.”
In other settings, Trump has been harshly critical of more liberal immigration policies in Western Europe, especially in Germany and France.
“And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’ve done it a different way than the prime minister,” Trump said Monday.
Trump then invited Orban to say his piece.
“From the people, by the people, for the people,” Orban replied, his tone clipped. “This is the basis for the Hungarian government, so it’s a government which is elected by the Hungarian people several times,” Orban said. “So we are happy to serve our nation.”
Independent election monitors have found that Hungarian elections have become less free, and the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe was critical of the Orban government’s propaganda campaign during the most recent election in 2018.
“Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate,” OSCE monitors wrote.
Trump, wagging his index finger, closed off further discussion of Hungarian democracy by noting that the country is “a very good member of NATO, and I don’t think we can go into too much of a discussion unless that’s mentioned.”