- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2019

President Trump praised visiting Hungarian leader Viktor Orban for his tough stance on immigration and defense of Christianity in the first White House visit by a Hungarian prime minister in 14 years.

The Oval Office invitation was a source of controversy in Europe and on Capitol Hill, as Mr. Orban is known as a fierce nationalist and immigration skeptic whose embrace of what he calls “illiberal” democracy has alarmed some in the West and sparked major rifts within the European Union.

Mr. Orban insists he is doing what is necessary to preserve the culture and identity of his small, landlocked nation, but critics say Mr. Trump’s invitation would only encourage his efforts to tilt the courts and curb the press in his favor.

He has tangled with EU leaders and pushed strongly restrictionist immigration policies targeting Muslims, including a barbed-war border fence erected during the 2015 Middle East refugee crisis. His approach has drawn comparisons to Mr. Trump’s push for a border wall with Mexico.

“Probably, like me, a little controversial,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Orban before their private talks. “But that’s OK. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.”

A White House readout after the private talks said the two leaders discussed their joint commitment to NATO and “their democratic systems of government,” as well as “how best to increase vigilance against unchecked global migration and to address China’s unfair trade and investment practices.”

The meeting comes just over a week before European Union parliamentary votes in which right-wing, populist parties across the continent are trying to band together to increase their clout in Brussels. Mr. Trump brushed off a question of Mr. Orban’s record on civil liberties and tolerating dissent Monday.

“I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man,” Mr. Trump said. “And he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”

The president said European countries who’ve done things a “different way” from Hungary are having problems with migration.

But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to extend Mr. Orban the honor of a White House visit, citing both his moves to restrict democracy at home and his willingness to purchase Russian oil and work to dilute U.S. and EU sanctions on Moscow.

“While the U.S. has sought to contain Kremlin aggression across Europe, we remain profoundly concerned about the close relationship between Hungary and Moscow,” four senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the panel’s ranking Democrat, wrote Mr. Trump late last week.

For his part, Mr. Orban suggested voters have signed off on his policies by electing his party in multiple elections, including three straight triumphs since 2010 that have left his conservative Fidesz party firmly in control in Budapest. Hungary’s economy has also grown strongly under Mr. Orban in recent years.

The stated purpose of Mr. Orban’s visit is to recognize his nation’s 20th anniversary as a NATO member and discuss a range of issues, including cybersecurity and trade. Washington and Budapest have been discussing deals for Hungary to purchase U.S. medium-range missiles and American natural gas, but there was also some background tensions in the talks.

Mr. Orban has been a voice for a more accommodating relationship with Russia within EU policy circles, and Hungary has also been part of an Eastern European bloc of countries that have backed accepting more Chinese investment and infrastructure aid as part of Beijing’s Road and Belt initiative.

But the 55-year-old Mr. Orban emphasized areas of common agreement with the Trump administration in brief remarks to reporters Monday.

“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,” Mr. Orban said.

Mr. Trump praised Mr. Orban on that last part, saying he put a “block up” on behalf of Christian communities.

⦁ David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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