Unfortunately, Viktor Orban was allowed inside the White House on Monday.
Orban’s presence at 1600 Penn. is yet another example of Donald Trump rubbing shoulders with a controversial leader against the implicit advice of Congress. “Hungary has experienced a steady corrosion of freedom and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator”, a bipartisan group of Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee reminded Trump, in a letter.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Orban is a truly despicable individual whose ongoing efforts to stamp out domestic dissent and run roughshod over democratic norms have created what amounts to a dictatorship in Hungary. His Fidesz party was suspended from the European People’s Party earlier this year amid concerns about the steady erosion of the rule of law in Hungary. Orban’s anti-immigrant stance is legendary and his crusade against George Soros is an important subplot in the larger story about the spread of xenophobia in Europe and the United States over the past five years.
Of course Orban’s penchant for trampling on the rule of law, curtailing press freedom and just generally being an insufferable despot means he’s got a kindred spirit in Trump.
Obviously, hosting Orban sends the wrong message to the world. His presence at the White House suggests America’s commitment to democracy is waning and also underscores this administration’s willingness to look the other way on human rights abuses.
Trump kicked things off by claiming that Orban is “respected all over Europe.” That is a blatant lie. Orban is almost universally despised. Matteo Salvini likes him, though.
Trump went on to say it’s “ok” that Orban is “controversial”, because he’s “kept his country safe”.
Make no mistake, that entire clip is just Trump dog-whistling to anti-immigrant hardliners and, frankly, pandering to racists.
Asked whether Trump is concerned about the demise of democracy in Hungary, the US president said this:
To call that inexcusable would be to grossly understate the case. Trump is (again) emboldening dictators and encouraging the demise of democracy on a global scale.
Of course, Trump was asked about the tariffs, and he largely stuck to the script, although market participants are likely to key on a potential meeting with Xi at the G20 as something to be optimistic about.
As you can see, Trump says there’s been no final decision on whether to slap tariffs on the remainder of Chinese goods.
Asked about the situation with Iran, Trump said he’s “hearing little stories”, but promised to make Tehran “suffer greatly” if they “do anything.”
Finally, no press availability would be complete without a reference to “no collusion”, which is why, when asked whether he’d commit to not using any information stolen by a foreign adversary in the course of winning an election, the president said the following:
But don’t let the China chatter and the “no collusion” broken record distract from the key takeaway, which is that Trump is hosting a despot at the White House.
Orban is, for lack of a better term, a problem. He is the living embodiment of backsliding Western democracies and has no business making a formal visit to the United States.
Everyone knows that. Everyone but Trump, that is.
For reference, here is the full bipartisan letter to Trump mentioned above
Dear Mr. President:
We are writing in advance of your scheduled meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to express concern about Hungary’s downward democratic trajectory and the implications for U.S. interests in Central Europe. We urge you to raise these issues in your meeting with the Prime Minister.
In recent years, democracy in Hungary has significantly eroded. As Dalibor Rohac from the American Enterprise Institute recently observed, Hungary has experienced a steady corrosion of freedom, the rule of law and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and the World Bank. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. Freedom House recently downgraded Hungary to “partly free” status – the first European Union country and the first post-communist country to experience such a decline. Under Orban, the election process has become less competitive and the judiciary is increasingly controlled by the state. Press freedom has declined as advertisers have been strongly discouraged from placing ads in independent outlets and ownership has been consolidated under a foundation that is exempt from antitrust regulation.
While the U.S. has sought to counter Kremlin aggression across Europe, we remain profoundly concerned about the close relationship between this NATO partner and Moscow. Hungary has failed to diversify its energy resources away from Moscow. Hungary has allowed Russia to exploit its “golden visa” system to evade U.S. sanctions. The relocation of the International Investment Bank (IIB, the successor to the Cold War institution known as Comecon) from Moscow to Budapest is an exercise in Russian power projection. Most disturbingly, despite an extradition request from the United States based on an existing and active bilateral treaty, Hungary rejected the request and sent two arms dealers to their freedom in Moscow.
We recognize that Hungary has an important security role in NATO. We welcome the recent signing of the Defense Cooperation Agreement and hope there will not be further delays in its approval by Hungary’s parliament. We urge you, however, to not diminish the importance of democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest.
As Secretary Pompeo said during his recent visit to Central Europe in February: “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished.” We strongly agree.
Americans proudly supported Hungarian freedom fighters against Soviet invaders in 1956 and the world was inspired 30 years ago this month when Hungarians tore down the fence between their country and Austria, a landmark event in 1989’s remarkable democratic transitions across Europe. 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.