US President Donald Trump on Monday praised Hungary’s hardline authoritarian Viktor Orban as a leader respected throughout Europe who kept his country safe with his crackdown on immigration.
“Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways,” Trump told reporters ahead of Oval Office talks with the controversial prime minister.
“Respected all over Europe,” Trump said, adding: “Probably like me a little bit controversial, but that’s okay. You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe.”
Trump gave Orban a warm welcome at the White House, where they were planning discussions on European regional issues, NATO, energy and trade.
The two share similar stances on immigration and both are critics of NATO and the European Union while seeking better ties with Moscow.
“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,” Trump added.
“You look at some of the problems they have in Europe that are tremendous because they have done it a different way than the prime minister.”
The one-on-one talks with Trump offer the eurosceptic Orban a podium less than two weeks before EU parliamentary elections in which far-right parties are expected to make a strong showing.
“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,” Orban told reporters.
Trump replied: “You have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.”
The runup to the visit drew strong criticism from Democrats and activists who accused Trump of giving a platform to an anti-democratic leader.
US ties with Budapest were chilly under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who often chided Orban for cracking down on civil liberties and freedom of the press in Hungary.
But Washington reversed course under Trump, whose anti-immigration campaign echoes Orban’s, as well as what his critics say is an alignment with white Christian nationalists.
Trump has shown a preference for authoritarian leaders over Washington’s traditional Western allies, as underscored by his warm welcomes for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House.
“Hungary’s prime minister does not belong in the Oval Office,” Rob Berschinski, of Human Rights First, and Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands wrote in a Washington Post opinion column.
“The visit is a grievous mistake — not just because it will be seen as an endorsement of a leader who has successfully dismantled a democracy, but also because it will signal an affirmation of an agenda that is fundamentally threatening to transatlantic security.”
In a letter ahead of the visit, several Democratic lawmakers said Trump should postpone their meeting until Orban “returns his country to the path of democracy and respect for human rights.”