WASHINGTON – President Trump offered praise on Monday for Hungary’s controversial prime minister during the European leader’s first White House visit in more than 20 years, describing him as a highly respected figure who has done what he must to keep his country safe.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has drawn international criticism for his views, was the first foreign leader to endorse Trump’s candidacy for president in 2016. But he is the last central European leader to receive an invitation because the US administration saw him as politically contentious.
Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sought to keep their distance from Orban, widely known for his zero-tolerance policy toward migrants and his systematic crackdown on media freedom and human rights.
Many of Trump’s critics viewed the invitation as standard practice for a president who has shown deference to some of the world’s more authoritarian figures. Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned Trump in a letter last week against forging close ties to Orban.
In the Oval Office on Monday, the two leaders sat alongside one another, Trump joking that Orban is “like me – a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”
“People have a lot of respect for this prime minister,” Trump added. “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.”
Orban has branded migrants, particularly from war-torn Muslim-majority countries, as a threat to Europe’s Christian civilization. He built a barbed-wire border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more arrivals. On Monday, he stood firm on his views.
“We are proud to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world,” Orban told reporters. That prompted Trump to add, “You have been great with respect to Christian communities.”
Last year, Hungary’s parliament approved a package of bills that criminalizes some help given to illegal immigrants, defying the European Union and human rights groups. The so-called Stop Soros bill was “the latest in a series of deeply problematic laws and campaigns, aims to muzzle those who work to assist people in need and who dare to raise their voices,” according to Amnesty International.
Last week, the United Nations’ human rights agency voiced concern over reports that Hungary’s government is depriving rejected asylum seekers of food for up to five days at a time. According to the UN, Hungarian authorities had promised to end the deliberate deprivation of food after an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, but said “reports suggest the practice is continuing.”
When last he visited the White House in 1998, Orban, then a young politician who was viewed as a conventional European conservative, thanked then-President Bill Clinton for Hungary’s new membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But over the years that have included political triumphs and defeats, Orban has grown intent on repelling what he has described as “liberal democracy.”
When a reporter asked Orban on Monday whether he intends to carry out Democratic reforms in his country, Trump interrupted, saying: “Don’t forget they’re a member of NATO, and a very good member of NATO and I don’t think we can really go into too much of a discussion unless that’s mentioned.”