Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been called "Trump before Trump" by Steve Bannon, and on Monday President Donald Trump welcomed him to the White House for what administration officials described as a “strategy of re-engagement” in the eastern European region and critics described as yet another example of the president aligning with the far-right. In the Oval Office, the president called the visit "a great honor" and said the "relationship is very good with Hungary."
"Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably like me a little bit controversial, but that's okay. That's okay. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe," Trump said.
"We'll be discussing NATO, as you know Hungary is a proud member of NATO, and we've gotten to know each other a little bit. We'll be discussing trade, and lots of other subjects. We'll be meeting with representatives of Hungary later with the Prime Minister, and we'll spend some good time together."
Orban said the two leaders "have some similar approaches," specifically citing their views on illegal migration and commitment to "help the Christian communities around the world."
The visit, the first by a Hungarian Prime Minister since 2005, has been met with controversy and bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill over Orban’s human rights record, nationalist tone, and what lawmakers describe as a “downward democratic trajectory” in Hungary.
President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama avoided meeting with Orban while in the White House.
On Friday, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to Trump that outlined issues they hope he will raise -- specifically, the "steady corrosion of freedom" in Hungary, press freedom, and Orban's reluctance to move away from Russian energy sources.
However, White House officials told reporters the two leaders plan to talk about a range of issues, including NATO arms deals, trade, energy diversification and security, and security partnerships. They also plan to celebrate Hungary’s 20th anniversary of being an allied partner in NATO.
Orban, the first foreign leader to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, has called Muslim migrants "invaders," pushed out the Central European University because of its ties to George Soros, a Hungarian American and Jewish philanthropist, and has cozied up to Putin by supporting the annexation of Crimea while maintaining strong economic ties to Russia. He has also built a fence along Hungary’s border and cracked down on asylum seekers – priorities also shared by the president.
Administration officials said the president intends to bring up the rise in anti-semitism and other issues, but the president has shown he likes Orban's strongman style. U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Cornstein raised eyebrows when he told the Atlantic in an interview the Trump "would love to have the situation Viktor Orban has."
An administration official said those words in the interview were taken out of context.
Trump on Monday was asked about "democratic backsliding" in Hungary.
"Well, people have a lot of respect for this prime minister. He's a respected man, and 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. 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 replied.
Orban defended the Hungarian government as being "From the people by the people for the people."
"This is the basis for the Hungarian government. It's a government that is elected by the Hungarian people several times," Orban said. "We're happy to serve our nation."
Monday's visit is the latest in a steady stream of visits and strengthened relationships between President Trump and strongman, nationalist leaders, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro.