Trump Praises Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brushing Aside Criticism

WASHINGTON — President Trump lavished praise on Monday on Viktor Orban, the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary and one of Europe’s leading nationalists, brushing aside concerns about the rollback of democratic institutions and warming ties with Russia.

“Victor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many ways,” Mr. Trump said as he hosted the prime minister at the White House. “Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s O.K. That’s O.K. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.”

For Mr. Orban, the American president’s embrace was a welcome affirmation, not to mention a striking contrast to the chilly reception he often gets from European leaders who see him as a threat to their vision of a modern continent. Mr. Orban has vowed to build “an alternative to liberal democracy,” casting himself as a defender of a Christian homeland against Muslim migrants.

American government officials and human rights groups have long criticized Mr. Orban’s policies and statements, but Mr. Trump disregarded concerns in inviting him to the Oval Office, something President Barack Obama refused to do. Trump administration officials argued that engagement was a better approach than estrangement, saying that they have raised concerns about Mr. Orban’s policies at lower levels, even if Mr. Trump himself had not.

Indeed, during their appearance before reporters, Mr. Trump expressed no qualms about Mr. Orban’s approach and welcomed him as a valued ally to the United States and as a like-minded leader fighting illegal immigration and defending Christian culture.

“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,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “And you look at some of the problems they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’ve done it a different way than the prime minister.”

For his part, Mr. Orban cast himself as a Hungarian Trump. “We have some similar approaches,” Mr. Orban said. “And I would like to express that 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 around the world.”

Mr. Trump then added: “And you have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.”

Asked about Hungary’s weakening democratic institutions, Mr. Orban dismissed the question with a single sentence: “We have a new Constitution, accepted in 2011, and it’s functioning well.”

Mr. Trump interjected to defend Mr. Orban. “And they’re a member of NATO,” he said. “A good member of NATO. I don’t think we can really go into too much of a discussion unless that’s mentioned.”

The president made no mention of the fact that Hungary spends only 1.15 percent of its economy on defense, even though he regularly excoriates other North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders for not meeting the 2 percent goal set by the alliance. Likewise, he said nothing about Hungary’s increasing energy ties with Russia, unlike his repeated criticism of Germany on the same issue.

Hungary’s vast pro-government media network, which includes public media and scores of nominally private media outlets controlled by the prime minister’s allies, lauded Mr. Orban’s visit to the White House as validation of the prime minister’s politics and gravitas in global politics.

Summarizing interviews with local pundits, a home-page article on Origo made the case that Mr. Orban’s invitation to the White House “is a clear message to the elite in Brussels” from Mr. Trump that he sees opportunities to strengthen trans-Atlantic relations beyond the relations offered by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.

Pro-government media reported that the meeting was not coincidental, suggesting that it amounted to an endorsement of Mr. Orban before the European Parliament elections this month.

In Washington, however, the criticism was biting. Some American analysts and government veterans said that Mr. Trump appeared to be endorsing Mr. Orban and giving away one of a president’s most valued offerings — the prestige of a White House visit — without extracting any concessions.

“I’m not sure what we’re getting out of it,” said Heather A. Conley, the senior vice president for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official under President George W. Bush. “We’re having meetings, but for what? Why are we doing it? What’s missing is a well thought out strategy plan.”

Benjamin Novak contributed from Budapest.

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