The Strongman Spending Big Bucks to Suck Up to Trump
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán likes what he sees in President Donald Trump, and he’s paying a former congressman to make sure the White House knows it.
To do so, it has enlisted the services of a former U.S. congressman whose lobbying work for the country’s ruling party has included recounting at length in communications with White House, State Department, and congressional officials Hungarian leaders’ support for Trump during the presidential campaign.
That lobbyist, former Rep. Connie Mack, has seized on an emerging realization among foreign leaders trying to shore up their relationship with the U.S. and its new president: Openly praising Trump is a good way to get him, and the military and economic might at his fingertips, on your side.
For many nations, especially in Europe, that has simply required a different—if perhaps effacing—approach to shoring up existing relations. But for Hungary, where Russian influence in domestic politics and a crackdown on internal political opposition have drawn international criticism, feteing President Trump presents an opportunity to draw the U.S. closer to a country that has recently embraced illiberal policies that some in Trump’s own administration have called out.
Whether the strategy can keep Hungary in the U.S.’ good graces remains to be seen. The State Department this month condemned a new law in the country cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs, but so far the president himself has been publicly silent.
At the helm of Hungary’s right-wing ruling party is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a self-described opponent of political liberalism, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a symbol of Putin’s quest to make inroads further west and boost European alternatives to continental antagonism toward Russia.
In Trump, who has raised eyebrows with his own Putin praise, Orbán has apparently found another kindred spirit. As Orbán put it, he and the president have “found a common voice.” And one of Trump’s advisers, Hungarian-descended counterterrorism aide Sebastian Gorka, has been a target of Mack’s lobbying campaigns.
Mack has been charged with amplifying that “common voice.” His SLI International Group has been promoting Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party in meetings and correspondence with senior administration officials and members of Congress. SLI and another of Mack’s consulting firms, Liberty International Group LLC, have reported bringing in about $70,000 per month under a pair of consulting contracts with Orbán’s office.
Mack did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
He wasn’t the only political muscle behind lobbying effort, according to documents filed with the Department of Justice. From October 2014 to April 2015, SLI enlisted the services of former Social Security Administrator Jo Anne Barnhart. She now leads the Magyar Foundation of North America, which, Hungarian government documents indicate, has received state financial support (PDF).
A Florida Republican who prides himself on his deep D.C. connections, Mack panned Trump during the campaign over his “racist” and “bigoted” comments. Since the election, with his Hungarian client looking to get in the Trump administration’s good graces, Mack has changed his tune.
Orbán, in contrast, was an outspoken Trump supporter during the campaign. Mack’s job, it seems, is to ensure the president and his administration don’t forget it.
In an email two weeks after Trump was inaugurated, Mack blasted out an Orbán statement congratulating President Trump on his election win. “Your historic election victory gives you a strong mandate from the American people to bring about change,” Orbán wrote.
DOJ filings show Mack corresponded with just three people on Feb. 2, the day it was sent (PDF). Two were Capitol Hill staffers: Drew Kent, the chief of staff for Rep. Charlie Dent, then the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee’s state and foreign operations panel, and Craig Higgins, who on the same day Mack reached out was elevated to staff director of that same subcommittee.
The third was Gorka. That raised eyebrows among Hungarian political experts given his prior work in Budapest’s right-wing political circles—some of which has drawn such controversy that Gorka was almost forced out of the White House. “The Hungarian government has already gotten in touch with Sebastian Gorka,” noted former Yale University history professor Eva Balogh this month. “The Orbán government is hoping to use as a direct line to the White House,” she alleged.
When Gorka came under fire for his association with a Hungarian order notorious for having collaborated with the Nazi regime, a prominent Washington publication ran a column defending him by Tibor Navracsics, Orbán’s former deputy prime minister.
According to Mack’s DOJ filings (PDF), his work on Orbán’s behalf since Trump’s election has included meetings and email exchanges with Vice President Mike Pence, more than 20 congressional offices, the White House National Security Council (through Gorka), and the State Department, by way of its in-house White House adviser Matt Mowers, a former aide to New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Among the materials Mack has distributed are lengthy (PDF), bullet-pointed rundowns of all the nice things Orbán has said about Trump since the presidential campaign (PDF). A number of the statements are policy-focused—Trump and Orbán agree that Middle Eastern refugees pose a grave threat—but others simply praise Trump the man.
“Therein lies the kinship with the US President-elect. You can sense this same self-made man mentality in him,” Orbán gushed in a December interview. In Trump, he said, "I've spoken to a true American.”
Mack’s Trump-effusing press releases also included a map of Europe broken down by country, showing that Hungary was the only one that, polls showed, supported Trump over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. “The map below clearly demonstrates Hungary's support for the Trump Administration,” a caption declares.
The strategy is well tailored to the Trump era, in which foreign leaders have found the best way to get in the good graces of the new administration is to lavish praise on the president, preferably within earshot.
According to a May report from The New York Times, those leaders have learned that flattering the president is crucial when attempting to press him on international policy goals. They’ve taken to mentioning Trump’s electoral college victory in meetings with the president, and “contrast[ing] him favorably with President Barack Obama,” according to the Times.
The nature of the issues on which the two leaders tend to agree have turned the domestic U.S. political debate over the country’s relationship with Hungary into a proxy battle over contentious policy issues. And as with other Trump policy priorities, opposition has been cast as a nefarious conspiracy by wealthy liberals.
Chief among them is George Soros, a Hungarian-born hedge fund billionaire. Some Republicans’ foreign policy statements on Hungary of late have been littered with references to the famous financier of left-wing causes in the United States and abroad. “Prime Minister Victor [sic] Orbán leads the way again,” Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King said in April. “Marxist billionaire Soros cannot be allowed to influence U.S. elections either.”
Soros has also featured prominently in Orbán’s public statements—and in Mack’s communications strategy. When Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a congressional resolution in May slamming Orbán’s “moves towards authoritarianism in word and action,” Mack sent out an email alleging the resolution was “simply another addition to the negative campaign against Hungary pursued by George Soros' network of influence.”
“I think it’s pathetic partisan politics at the expense of real people and real lives and real freedoms,” Moulton said of the Soros comments. “They’re trying to take a national security issue and pollute it with domestic politics just because a certain successful Hungarian happens to support the Democratic Party.”
“I’ve never met George Soros. I barely know who George Soros is,” Moulton added in an interview on Tuesday. “If Congressman Mack wants to say that he should come meet with me first and get his facts straight.”
Moulton, a rising Democratic star in his second term in Congress, says he has pursued the issue since learning about political dynamics in the country from a friend, his Hungarian college roommate. Moulton said he sees the country “moving away from the West and our allies, back into the orbit and influence of Russia.”
Asked whether Orbán’s affinity for Trump in fact signals a closer Hungarian relationship with the United States, Moulton said, “No, it signals a closer relationship with Donald Trump. That’s all it signals.”
That appears to be the goal of Mack’s Hungarian lobbying strategy, which is perfectly tailored to the geopolitical idiosyncrasies of the Trump era. Mack himself was never particularly big on the president. He endorsed former Florida governor Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential primaries. As late as June 2016, he was criticizing Trump’s “racist comments, bigoted comments, attacking women and minorities...It’s not something that I think any of us should be proud of.” Asked whether he would vote for Trump, Mack said, “I don’t know, I’m really conflicted on this. I wish I had an opportunity, someone else I could support.”
By election day, his tone was different. Mack visited a Florida Republican Party office the day before the vote to rally support for the GOP nominee. The day after Trump prevailed, Mack was exuberant. “Thank you to all the volunteers for all of your hard work and dedication. @realDonaldTrump is #PresidentElectTrump because of you,” he wrote on Twitter.
“During those primaries, it’s like a fight within the family, and sometimes they get very rough, but the great thing about a family is, is that after it’s over you all come back together and try to find a way to make it work,” he told a Hungarian news outlet a month later.
That outlet, Hungary Today, wanted to know how Mack could effectively advocate for a prime minister, Orbán, whose foreign policy towards the United States seemed to consist primarily of ingratiating himself with an American commander in chief that Mack had publicly rebuked.
Mack assured them that he would put his personal views aside in his quest to fete the president on Orbán’s behalf.
“And at the end of the day, the client is right, at the end of the day my job is to do what the client thinks is the right thing to do,” Mack said.