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Trump Praises Hard-Line Hungarian PM In Closely Watched White House Meeting


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office on May 13.

U.S. President Donald Trump has praised Hungary's hard-line prime minister for his immigration policies, as he hosted Viktor Orban in an Oval Office meeting that has worried some European allies and U.S. lawmakers who say Budapest is sliding into authoritarianism.

Orban's May 13 meeting was his first with a U.S. president since returning to the post of prime minister in 2010.

In comments to reporters before their meeting, Trump said it was a "great honor" to have him in the Oval Office. He made passing reference to Orban's hard-line position on immigration, in particular in 2015 when millions of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa flooded into Europe.

"Highly respected, respected all over Europe," he told Orban. "Probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that's OK. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe."

Orban told reporters he was in Washington to "strengthen our strategic alliance."

"I'm proud to stand with the U.S. on fighting illegal migration, on terrorism and to protect Christian communities around the world," he said.

"You have been great with respect to Christian communities, and you have really put a block up and we appreciate that very much," Trump said.

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters last week that Orban's visit was part of a Trump administration strategy of reengagement in Central and Eastern Europe.

Still, the White House meeting has been viewed by many observers as a dangerous endorsement of Orban's hard-line approach, which has drawn reprimand from the European Parliament.

Hungary is both a member of the European Union and, perhaps more importantly for the United States, of NATO. Aside from domestic politics, Orban has also shown affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government has deepened ties with China.

Trump's meeting "lends legitimacy to [Orban's] illiberal agenda," Jonathan Katz, a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund for the United States, said in an article published by Axios. "Trump's meeting with Orban is raising concerns in Washington and the capitals of U.S. allies across Europe."

Human rights activists argued that by granting Orban the prestige of a White House meeting, Trump is effectively endorsing Orban's policies.

"Orban shares Putin's affinity for repression and willingness to trample public freedoms for personal gain and has gambled that he can silence criticism without resorting to the kind of violence that draws greater international criticism," said Amnesty International researchers Daniel Balson and David Vig in an op-ed published ahead of the meeting. "The White House, so far, has committed to letting this gamble pay off."

Since taking over the post of prime minister in 2010, Orban and his political party, Fidesz, have slowly squeezed Hungarian civil society and independent media outlets, and critics say, undermined the independence of the country's judiciary.

Since the European immigration crisis peaked in 2015, Orban has toughened his policies on immigration and frequently employed near-xenophobic rhetoric against migrants.

Orban has also found common cause with Trump in vilifying Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Last year, Orban kicked out the Soros-founded Central European University from Budapest, and some of his attacks on Soros have had shades of anti-Semitism.

All this despite Orban's studying at Oxford on a Soros-financed scholarship in 1989-1990. Soros was also a major financial backer of Fidesz, founded in 1988.

Hungary's slip to the right has worried many other European Union members. Last year, the European Parliament voted to launch Article 7 proceedings against Hungary -- which would potentially strip Budapest of its voting rights in the EU's executive body, the European Commission.

Article 7 is triggered when an EU members violates "human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities."

Trump's affinity for Orban dropped into broader view after the current U.S. ambassador to Hungary -- a Trump appointee -- described the president's feelings in an interview published in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine.

"I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn't," David Cornstein told the magazine.

All this has drawn the ire of some members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike. A group of Democratic senators led by Dianne Feinstein introduced a resolution in January condemning Orban's government and accusing it of undermining democracy in Hungary.

And in a letter released on May 10, four members of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee -- Democrats Bob Menendez and Jeanne Shaheen, and Republicans Jim Risch and Marco Rubio -- called on Trump to emphasize "democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest."

The senators also cited Budapest's relationship Russia, saying Hungary hadn't diversified its energy resources away from Moscow.

"We hope that Hungary will return to these democratic roots and inspiring history. We stand in solidarity with the Hungarian people and urge you to remain true to these democratic values that have undergirded our relations with Central and Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War," the senators wrote.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.