On Monday evening, when the Washington Post cited current and former US officials in reporting that Donald Trump’s policy towards new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was shaped in part by his interactions with Vladimir Putin and Hungarian hardliner Viktor Orban, we gently suggested that the timing of Orban’s controversial visit to Washington might have afforded him a unique opportunity.
Trump made a show of welcoming Orban to the White House in May, around the exact same time Gordon Sondland, Rick Perry and Kurt Volker were allegedly working to bridge the gap between Rudy Giuliani’s international lobbying efforts (now reportedly the subject of an investigation by Manhattan prosecutors and the FBI) and official US policy.
On Tuesday, the New York Times picks up on that, noting that Orban’s visit came just 10 days before a crucial meeting between Trump and the “three amigos” (as Sondland, Perry and Volker came to call themselves). Trump was told at the meeting that Zelensky was, in fact, a real reformer who deserved American support, “but Trump expressed deep doubt, saying that Ukrainians were ‘terrible people’ who ‘tried to take me down'”, the Times writes. Again, that was 10 days after his meeting with Orban.
Trump’s meeting with the Hungarian autocrat (who, you’re reminded, is bad news personified) and a May 3 call with Putin are now focal points of House investigators in the impeachment inquiry. Orban has, at various intervals, tried to impede Ukraine’s relationship with Brussels and NATO, and, in a hilarious example of the pot calling the kettle black, accused the country of being “semi-fascist”.
If you’ve been following along over the last two weeks, it won’t surprise you to learn that John Bolton and Fiona Hill tried to prevent Trump from meeting with Orban.
“Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, and Hill, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Eurasian and Russian affairs, opposed a White House invitation for the Hungarian leader”, the Times says, citing people briefed on the matter, and adding that “they were outmaneuvered by Mick Mulvaney… who supported such a meeting”.
During testimony to lawmakers last week, Hill described a truly unnerving state of affairs at the White House, and detailed how she and Bolton were aghast at Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy. Bolton, Hill told House investigators, once described the pressure campaign orchestrated by Giuliani, Sondland and Volker as a “drug deal“.
To be clear, the idea that Mulvaney – who last week admitted, on camera, that the administration attempted to parlay nearly $400 million in congressionally-approved military aid into an investigation of Democrats, only to frantically walk back his remarks – was successful in “outmaneuvering” John Bolton and Fiona Hill on foreign policy is laughable. It’s not that Mick “outmaneuvered” them. Rather, it’s that Trump was hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda shaped by Giuliani’s conspiracy theories, and whoever wasn’t on board with that got left out in the cold.
Now, Mick will be scrutinized even more closely, something the Times makes clear. “Mulvaney’s role in facilitating Orban’s visit adds to the picture of the acting chief of staff’s role in the Ukraine situation”, their reporting reads.
If you’re wondering whether Orban did, in fact, seize the opportunity, the answer is yes.
According to a pair of people briefed on the meetings, Orban “used the opportunity to disparage Ukraine with the president”. For his part, Putin has every reason to fill Trump’s head with propaganda about the country.