The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration tried to save a U.S. university by playing nice with an autocrat. It failed. 

Protestors rally in support of the Central European University in front of Hungary's Parliament building in Budapest.
Protestors rally in support of the Central European University in front of Hungary's Parliament building in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

BUDAPEST — The future of a revered American university was on the line, and President Trump’s ambassador came to Hungary on a mission to save it.

When David B. Cornstein arrived in Budapest last summer, Central European University faced an imminent threat of ejection by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Rather than try to shame the increasingly authoritarian leader into backing down, Cornstein sought to charm him. 

He told Hungarian media he saw no hint of government infringement on liberties or human rights, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He vouched for Orban with his longtime friend, the president. And after a meeting with the right-wing prime minister in September, Cornstein pronounced that the two had used their easy rapport to reach the cusp of a deal that would keep CEU in Hungary forever. 

It was not to be. On Monday, the university plans to announce that it has been kicked out of the country — a dark waypoint in Hungary’s crackdown on civil society and an ominous sign for U.S. institutions operating under autocratic regimes worldwide.

“The startling fact is that an American institution that has been in this country for 25 years is being thrown out by a U.S. and NATO ally,” said Michael Ignatieff, the university’s president. “It’s a warning. Once the rule of law is tampered with, no institution is safe.”

The failure to protect CEU fits a pattern of the Trump presidency: The United States in the past two years has cozied up to numerous autocratic regimes. But that does not mean it can effectively influence them.

As has been true with Russia, North Korea and other governments long considered unsavory in Washington, Trump has taken a markedly friendlier line. Yet the results have been mixed, at best. 

In Hungary, Trump has broken with his two predecessors — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — by engaging Orban, rather than trying to isolate him. 

Trump’s onetime chief guru Stephen K. Bannon praised Orban as “a hero” for his uncompromising stance against immigration, and some administration officials see in the ever-provocative prime minister an ideological compatriot more to their liking than the traditional centrist heavyweights of Europe. Orban’s foreign minister has been welcomed to Washington for high-level meetings, and a possible White House visit for the prime minister has been floated.

But the affection does not seem to have made Orban any more inclined toward Washington. CEU’s departure is just one among a series of setbacks for U.S. interests as Orban steers the country closer to Moscow, its Cold War-era master, and away from a Western orbit that Hungary had been desperate to join only a generation ago. 

Orban has defied Washington in recent months by ignoring a U.S. extradition request for a pair of Russian arms dealers, sending them to Moscow instead. Meanwhile, Hungary began sheltering the fugitive pro-Russian former prime minister of Macedonia and has been unmoved by U.S. appeals that he be sent home to serve a prison sentence on corruption charges.

“Orban thinks the U.S. is weak and will not act,” said Peter Kreko, executive director of the ­Budapest-based analysis firm ­Political Capital. “It’s incredible that the autocratic leader of a country of 10 million people can play these games with the U.S. and not face any consequences. It’s a humiliation.”

A senior U.S. official acknowledged setbacks in the relationship, but argued that there were early signs of progress in areas such as energy and defense. Ultimately, he said, it is too soon to judge a policy that has been in effect for only months.

“The jury is out. This approach may fail. I don’t know. I do know that the previous approach [of isolating Hungary] was not working,” said the official, who spoke under the ground rules that his name not be used.

Kicking out CEU is perhaps the most blatant example yet of Orban’s unwillingness to bow to U.S. wishes. The university has enjoyed strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, with representatives of both parties warning that ejecting the school will undercut academic freedom and harm U.S.-Hungarian relations. 

CEU was founded by Hungarian American financier George Soros in a bid to build bridges between East and West after the Iron Curtain tumbled. The university, which has dual accreditation in the United States and Hungary, educates graduate students drawn from more than 100 countries. Many of its programs are ranked among the world’s best, and it 21-member board of trustees is studded with top scholars from Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and beyond.

But the affiliation with Soros — the university’s honorary chairman and major funder — has made it a target for Orban, who has turned the 88-year-old liberal into his personal nemesis and political boogeyman

The university’s troubles began soon after Trump’s inauguration, in February 2017, with a campaign against CEU in the pro-government press. The next month, the government pushed legislation that appeared tailor-made to target the school, requiring foreign universities to establish academic activities in their home countries. 

CEU then set up a program at Bard College in New York that has been certified by state officials. But Hungary’s government has refused to acknowledge it, and the university’s American-accredited program will be barred from accepting new students as of Jan. 1 without a change in the government’s stance. 

Cornstein, an 80-year-old New Yorker who made a fortune in the jewelry, gambling and telemarketing industries, and who boasts of a decades-long friendship with Trump, was pressed by senators during his confirmation hearings to prioritize CEU’s cause. During his first week on the job in June, he paid a visit to the school to show support. 

He also pushed the matter behind the scenes, putting it high on an agenda that was otherwise dominated by hard-power interests. Notably, his priority list did not include defense of traditional U.S. values, including support for media freedom and nongovernmental organizations, both of which have been under assault in Hungary as Orban tightens his grip. 

When Cornstein told a Hungarian magazine in August that he saw no problem with human rights or liberties in Hungary, the comments were gleefully repeated by government spokesmen and the pro-government news media.

Yet even as Orban reaped the benefits of Washington’s gentler approach — including a long-
coveted phone call with Trump — the Hungarian government snubbed the ambassador’s attempts to mediate a deal on CEU. 

After months of ignoring the university’s requests for a negotiation, the government finally sent a representative for a meeting at the U.S. Embassy. But he turned out to be a relatively junior official with no authority to cut a deal in a country where it is widely known that one man calls the shots. 

Cornstein’s efforts to raise the issue personally with Orban ended with the prime minister reciting from a long list of anti-Orban comments made by Soros, according to multiple people familiar with the conversation.

But Cornstein clung for hope to Orban’s insistence that the ­Hungarian-accredited half of CEU would be protected, a frequent government talking point that avoids discussion of the true target: the American program.

In an interview this week at the U.S. Embassy, Cornstein declined to directly criticize Orban — whom he described as his “friend” — and instead blamed Soros for not cultivating better relations with the prime minister. 

He compared the university’s situation to his experience owning jewelry shops within a department store.

“I was a guest in another guy’s store,” he said. “The university is in another country. It would pay to work with the government.”

Cornstein also downplayed the university’s importance — comparing its 1,500 students with much bigger U.S. schools such as Michigan or Ohio State — and musing why “this has become such an important subject in the world.”

Ultimately, he said, the conflict is little more than a grudge match between Orban and Soros.

“It had to do with two men,” Cornstein said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom.”

That contradicts previous statements from the United States and many of its European allies, which have cast the university’s fate as a matter of principle. 

Zoltan Kovacs, a senior Hungarian government official and CEU graduate, said there had been no pressure from the Trump administration for Hungary to change its position on the university. He praised the administration for a “more common sense” approach to Hungary than was shown under Obama.

CEU has said it will move its primary campus to Vienna next year without a deal by Saturday. Though some operations are likely to remain in Budapest — at least temporarily — Ignatieff said the ouster would cause undeniable damage to both the school and the city it has called home for a quarter-century.

“You can’t have academic freedom without the rule of law, and we’re in a lawless environment,” said Ignatieff, a Canadian human rights scholar. “In a year, if you come back here, you’ll be looking at a university that has been the victim of a premeditated act of political vandalism.”

Gergo Saling in Budapest and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

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