Thomas O. Melia on Orban’s WH visit: Trump has a pattern of embracing authoritarian leaders

Viktor Orban was the first leaders to openly support the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016 and one of the firsts to congratulate him on his election. It is not surprising: a Clinton presidency would have been clearly devastating for him, because Clinton, as Secretary of State, regularly criticized the Hungarian leader. However, despite the ideological and political similarities between Trump and Orban, the Hungarian prime minister had to wait quite a long time to get an invitation to the Oval Office. We asked Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Obama administration, to help us understand the significance of the visit.

Atlatszo: Why did President Trump delay Orbán for a bilateral meeting for so long?

Thomas O. Melia: I doubt Trump knows he ‘delayed’ anything. I suspect that, during his brief 15 months in the State Department, Assistant Secretary A. Wess Mitchell worked hard to elevate this engagement with the CEE countries/governments on to the Secretary of State’s agenda and on to the White House radar screen. This was a priority for Mitchell, who thought he could make his mark in the CEE region — which was one of his personal interests dating from his time at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a very small organization focused on central Europe.

Although the Mueller report hardly mentions this, Hungarian diplomats allegedly mediated between Russian leaders and the Trump campaign team during the 2016 RNC. Carter Page and JD Gordon visited Budapest several times late summer and early autumn in 2016 and supposedly met here Russian executives. Did this have an effect on the delay? If so, what were the considerations?

If that is true — and remember these are disputed accounts — they would not seem to be reasons for the Trump White House to delay.

During US Secretary of State Pompeo’s February visit to Budapest Orbán announced that, contrary to his previous policies, he would buy U.S. fighter jets in the context of Hungarian military development. Did Orbán buy his ticket to the White House with this?

Perhaps. Certainly, Mr. Pompeo would have told Orban that he would be greeted more warmly at the White House if Donald Trump could brag about having sold something to Hungary, like fighter jets.

Trump is famous for liking people who buy things from him. He is very short-term and transactional that way.

Have you heard the term ‘shuttlecock policy’ of Hungarian political history? Named after the politics of Miklós Kállay, Prime Minister of Hungary from 1942 to 1944 (see also: “Kállay duet”), who considered the Nazi German alliance, the great Hungarian military losses on the eastern front to be dangerous, and therefore began attentive secret negotiations with the Anglo-Saxon allies in Cairo and Istanbul. The secret talks did not go unnoticed by German intelligence, causing the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 with the known consequences (Hungarian Holocaust, destruction of Budapest and the country, 45 years of Russian occupation). Do you see a similarity between Kállay and Orbán’s policy, as the latter plays in the United States-Russia-China triangle, and while dreaming of an influential European role, can he become increasingly excluded from the European mainstream?

I am not as well-versed on Hungarian history as you are. But I certainly agree that Orban seems to be distancing himself from the West, and playing footsie with China and especially Russia, while openly admiring governance and economic policies of places such as Kazakhstan. As I have said in other contexts, Hungary has clearly become the weakest link in NATO, and an increasingly unreliable, even untrustworthy partner (If you look at the case of the Russian arms dealers)

How would you evaluate the coming switch in the State Dept from Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell to Philip Reeker to oversee the CEE region?

Phil Reeker is a highly regarded professional diplomat, with experience in Hungary and other countries in the region. He would be a steady hand, mindful of the full range of American interests.

Do you think the CEU issue will be on the table on Monday despite the known differences between President Trump & Mr. Soros?

I would be extremely surprised.

Would you think President Trump, by meeting Orban, wants to send a message to the leaders of the European Union, that he has a preference for nation-states in Europe instead of a United States of Europe?

Trump is meeting with many leaders from across Europe. I wouldn’t over study the larger ‘message’ of this handshake.

What is the significance of President Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Orbán at the White House, while leading opposition politicians Péter Márki-Zay and Zoltán Kész are hosted by the State Department that day?

Opposition leaders normally do not meet with the American president, yet are frequently hosted at the State Department and on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, etc. However, it is unusual to have parallel meetings like this at the same time. I think it reflects the chagrin on the part of the people in the State Department who know and care what is happening in Hungary and are dismayed that the President’s embrace of Orban will be interpreted by the Hungarian public as a sign that we no longer care for the wider Hungarian society. So, it is a helpful corrective.

Do you see any effect of the letter, what the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chair and members signed, on the results of the Trump-Orbán meet?

The bipartisan letter by leading senators, noting the political backsliding problems in Hungary and the unreliability of Orban’s government in security terms, is significant because these senators will be in office when Donald Trump is long gone.

Former US Ambassador April Foley wrote (in The Washington Times), that: ’During the Obama years, countries in Central and Eastern Europe rightfully felt neglected, while the U.S. administration’s efforts to reset relations with Russia overwrote long-standing friendships America had cultivated on Europe’s edge. U.S. meddling in Hungary’s domestic affairs and its criticism without engagement left a deep scar on bilateral relations.’ Would you agree?

Ambassador Foley doesn’t seem to have followed US-Hungary relations very closely during the Obama years when there was a very full bilateral engagement with Hungary in trade, security, law enforcement and political terms. Secretary of State Clinton visited Budapest.  The only thing we held back on was a White House meeting for Viktor Orban, for all the obvious reasons. At every other level, there was robust engagement.

Hungarian government-controlled press praised the meeting as ‘historic’ and said that ‘this is a clear-cut message for Old Europe.’ Do you think these were the intentions of the White House? Especially after Mike Pompeo’s pretty snub dealing with a meeting with Chancellor Merkel?

Trump and Orban do use similar language about imaginary invasions of immigrants and display their coziness with anti-Semites, and both are engaged in a very strange dalliance with Putin’s Russia. But it would be a mistake for Hungarians to believe that this represents American society or even political elites in Washington. The several letters to Trump opposing this meeting by senior members of Congress in both parties, confirm that Americans still know both what a democrat looks like — and who are reliable allies.

Thomas O. Melia – Photo: U.S. Embassy in Georgia/Flickr

Orbán told the Hungarian government-controlled press, comparing his visit to the White House 20 years ago and today: ‘I felt a difference. Nowadays a different type of leadership, a more straightforward politics is around the corner.’ How much are Trump and Orbán made for each other?

I am tempted to say ‘come back in another 20 years and tell me what people say about the Trump period‘. Around the corner is reality, so be careful you don’t get knocked over by it.  It doesn’t matter how many times leaders try to mislead their people — just as during the decades of communism, when people knew how to interpret – and ignore – the official propaganda without being fooled— so also today people in Hungary and the US have come to listen to the babble of political leaders with skepticism and intelligence.

Politico stated: »One former Hungarian government official told POLITICO that the main problem from a security perspective is that Budapest has opened the gates to Russian and Chinese influence to such a large extent that it has neither the ability nor the willingness to ‘at some level keep under control’ the activities of Russian and Chinese state-owned companies in Hungary.« How would you comment on this?

That’s right. Integration with Western and European institutions, which make sovereign nations stronger and more prosperous, is nothing like kowtowing to China or Russia, whose interests are not about making Hungary strong but are about making Hungary a tool to be used. The more Orbán wants to make Hungary the back-door for authoritarians into Europe, the less Hungary will be taken seriously by either East or West.

The Washington Post Editorial said letting Orbán in is a de facto endorsement of his politics and policy. How much could this be President Putin’s idea executed by the White House?

As we have been discussing, this does not represent an ‘American’ endorsement. It is a Trump endorsement. We don’t know what Trump talked about with Putin about last week so it could have been about Hungary.

What would be your overall evaluation of the visit?

Time will tell whether anything concrete emerges from this encounter.  The press coverage in the U.S. has been consistently accurate in reporting that this meeting was part of a continuing pattern of Donald Trump’s strange embrace of authoritarian leaders who are not friends of the United States, and indeed that it is a very late addition to the series of hugs Trump has given to Putin, Kim Jong-un, al-Sisi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and others. The wider convergence of interest between Americans and Hungarians who care about democratic fundamentals like the rule of law and honest elections and international stability will survive these theatrics, I am confident.

Written by András Vágvölgyi

You can read the interview in Hungarian here.

Cover image: MTI / Szilárd Koszticsák / Viktor Orban’s Facebook page