Viktor Orban won reelection as Hungary’s prime minister last month through a blood-and-soil campaign that married anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. Donald Trump’s secretary of state is about to reverse years of U.S. policy and receive Orban’s chief diplomat at Foggy Bottom.
Current and former State Department officials expressed alarm that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is giving facetime to an envoy for the demagogic and authoritarian Orban, who also happens to be Vladimir Putin’s best European friend.
“I’m fucking disgusted,” said a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The official considered Pompeo “cozying up to individuals like Orban” part of a broader pattern of the Trump administration ignoring human-rights abuses and democratic backsliding.
Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister, has been attempting to make direct contact with senior Trump administration officials since Trump’s election, but has gotten pawned off on low-level officials or bundled together at multilateral conferences.
The meeting between Pompeo and Szijjarto, scheduled for Wednesday morning, comes as Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party introduced legislation in Budapest on Tuesday threatening nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with jail time for seeming to aid illegal immigrants. That fulfills an election promise: Orban coasted to victory after portraying the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, as the puppet master behind Muslim migration to Hungary and Europe. The legislation is known as the “Stop Soros” package, and the climate behind it prompted Soros’ Open Society Foundations to leave Hungary entirely.
Szijjarto was no passive participant in the extended demonization of Soros and Muslim refugees. Last year, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary characterized an ad campaign warning that Soros sought “the last laugh” on illegal immigration as invoking “sad memories”—that is, of 20th-century European fascism—and “sow[ing] hatred and fear.” In response, Szijjarto thundered that Soros “would like to settle hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Europe and Hungary with the help of the NGOs he finances.” For good measure, Szijjarto contended that the true anti-Semites were “these illegal immigrants,” not his colleagues in Fidesz.
Orban and Fidesz won re-election on April 8. Szijjarto, the minister of foreign affairs and trade, escalated his Trump-esque rhetoric soon after.
“No matter how many times George Soros goes to Brussels, no matter how many times the issue of illegal immigration is placed on the agenda, and no matter how many allies George Soros has in Brussels, we will not back down. Illegal immigrants will continue to not be allowed entry into Hungary in [the] future,” Szijjarto said on April 18 in a comment featured on the government’s webpage. “Why are George Soros and his people in the European Parliament fighting against certain European countries instead of acting to combat terrorism?”
After this report initially published, Heather Nauert, the State Department chief spokesperson, defended the meeting while saying Pompeo categorically rejects anti-Semitism.
“Diplomats meet with leaders across the political spectrum. It doesn’t mean we see eye to eye on every issue,” Nauert told The Daily Beast. “Hungary is an important NATO ally. We deeply value this partnership, but just because we are allies doesn’t mean we agree on everything. We raise our concerns both publicly—including in our most recent human-rights report—and privately when we meet with Hungarian officials. That’s what diplomacy is.”
The 39-year old Szijjarto, who has been foreign minister since 2014, has not been a stranger to Washington. Reportedly, Szijjarto has made seven trips to D.C. since Trump’s victory. But the most senior official Szijjarto has managed to meet with was the since-fired White House firebrand-without-portfolio Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to an extreme-right Hungarian group. Although Szijjarto reportedly got a phone call from Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, the Hungarian minister only got invited to group talks concerning the European Union, NATO, and the war against ISIS.
Neither Tillerson nor his Obama administration predecessor, John Kerry, met with him one-on-one.
Antony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, said he didn’t have a problem with the Szijjarto meeting in and of itself—diplomats frequently with emissaries from unsavory regimes, though not necessarily at the highest levels—but much depended on the message Pompeo delivers.
“If he makes clear our own deep concerns with the trajectory of Hungarian policy, I think that’s a useful thing for the Hungarian foreign minister to hear from a key player in the Trump administration,” Blinken told The Daily Beast. “If, on the other hand, he says nothing about the excesses of Hungary’s policies at home and in Europe, I think it will enforce their own worst instincts.”
According to Heather Conley, a senior State Department official for Europe policy in George W. Bush’s administration, no U.S. secretary of state has held a bilateral meeting with their Hungarian counterpart since 2012. That’s an outgrowth of what Conley called an “arm’s length approach” taken by the Obama administration to a NATO ally that began in 2010 to restrict press freedom and judicial independence. During a June 2011 visit to Budapest, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unsubtle plea for Orban to reverse his authoritarian course.
The bilateral Pompeo-Szijjarto meeting “certainly sends a clear message that there has been a shift in U.S. policy that hasn’t been publicly discussed or explained,” said Conley, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who questioned what the U.S. will get out of the parley.
“I believe in American foreign policy that is values-based, and either you don’t hold this meeting because this ally hasn’t lived up to values you find important, or you hold it to impress on the government how important these values are for you,” Conley added.
The State Department hasn’t released an agenda for the Szijjarto meeting. But in a March 2017 interview with the Associated Press, Szijjarto held out hope for a reinvigorated relationship with the U.S. under Trump, who, like Orban, harnessed hatred of immigrants and Muslims. Back then, Szijjarto was urging a position that Trump seems sympathetic toward, even if his administration isn’t: rolling back sanctions on Russia for its occupation of Ukraine.
“We are pushing for an open, non-emotional, but rational debate and evaluation of the impact of the sanctions,” Szijjarto told the Associated Press back then.
Vladimir Putin doesn’t have many friends in European governments. Orban is the most prominent exception. When Putin makes rare visits to European Union member states, he typically chooses Hungary. It’s not hard to see why. Not only was Orban willing to sign gas contracts with Russia after the Ukraine invasion—though Orban has recently reduced his energy reliance on Moscow—but he’s a man whose vision of a post-liberal world order is in harmony with the Russian autocrat’s. His dog-whistle rhetoric about (((Soros))) echoes those of Putin’s mouthpieces. Similarly, in an infamous 2014 address known as the “Illiberal Democracy” speech, Orban sounded Putinesque tones about American decline.
“The strength of American soft power is in decline,” Orban declared, “and liberal values today embody corruption, sex and violence, and as such discredit America and American modernization.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, blasted Orban’s “goulash authoritarianism” on the Senate floor last Thursday, drawing out what he said were disturbing echoes of the Kremlin and warning that the re-empowered Orban government was on the precipice of a dangerous escalation.
“Viktor Orban now appears set to fulfill his campaign pledge to extract ‘moral, political and legal’ retribution from those who opposed him. He welcomed the publication of an ‘enemies list’ containing some 200 names—including numerous American citizens—and urged the close-to-Orban media to do more to root them out. This is the kind of smear campaign that often comes just before the gloves come off and the blows begin,” Cardin said.
On the eve of Pompeo welcoming Szijjarto to Foggy Bottom, the State Department’s annual religious-freedom report, released Tuesday, noted the ominous climate in Orban’s Hungary. It reported “incidents of assault and hate speech against Muslims and Jews, including Holocaust denial, and vandalism of religious properties”—even as it soft-pedaled Orban’s demonization of Soros.
“The government continued its campaign and public messaging against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive,” the State Department report found, “which Jewish leaders said could incite anti-Semitic acts.”