WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has never shied away from rubbing shoulders with leaders more typically kept at a distance by the West, and his Oval Office meeting Monday with Hungary's far right-leaning prime minister was only the latest example of his engagement with strongmen.
Like Trump, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has espoused hard-line anti-migration rhetoric. The president described his guest this way: "Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that's OK. That's OK. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe."
Trump's presidency has been marked by decisions that strain longtime U.S. alliances. He has refused to be confined to engaging only with traditional power players in the West. Orban has been accused of dismantling democratic institutions in his country.
A top Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, called the meeting with Orban "a betrayal to American values abroad" and said Trump "clearly has a dangerous affinity for authoritarian figures over our democratic allies."
Orban was the latest central European leader to get a meeting with Trump, who wants to curry their favor and discourage them from moving closer to China and Russia.
Orban said he was proud to stand with Trump in the "fight against illegal migration, on terrorism and protecting the Christian communities all around the world."
Asked about democratic backsliding in Hungary, Trump called Orban "a tough man," but added that he's "a respected man," too.
"He's done the right thing, according to many people on immigration," Trump said. "You look at some of the problems they have in Europe that are tremendous, because they've done it in a different way than the prime minister."
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First both said, however, that Orban has not only assaulted the rule of law and basic human rights in Hungary, but has "employed anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric while targeting civil society organizations and universities receiving funding from overseas."
The White House said the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to NATO and democratic systems of government. They also discussed how best to increase vigilance against unchecked global migration and to address China's unfair trade and investment practices.
Orban's was the first visit of a Hungarian prime minister to the Oval Office since 2005.
Orban faced years of harsh criticism from the Obama administration over his weakening of democratic checks and balances. U.S.-Hungary relations have improved in recent months, partly because of Hungarian plans to purchase medium-range missiles from U.S. sources to improve the country's air defense system.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, has warned Hungary that "an authoritarian Russia will never be a friend to the freedom and sovereignty of smaller nations." Pompeo also has emphasized the risks of doing business with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which has significant operations in Hungary, and said there are dangers to allowing "China to gain a bridgehead in Hungary."
The Republican chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote Trump a letter Friday, saying that "democracy in Hungary has significantly eroded." Sens. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said that under Orban, elections have become less competitive, the judiciary is increasingly controlled by the state and press freedom has declined.
The letter, also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., complained that Hungary has failed to diversify its energy resources away from Russia and has allowed Moscow to exploit its visa system to evade U.S. sanctions. Late last year, the State Department said Hungary denied a U.S. request to extradite two suspected Russian arms dealers and sent the men to Russia instead.
"I hope that in the private conversation Trump will tell him that we don't like Orban sliding into the Russian sphere of influence," said Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. who is now affiliated with George Washington University in Washington. "I am not sure he will, but if he does, the visit was totally worth it. Otherwise it was a waste of the president's time."
Orban is not the only hard-liner Trump has engaged with.
Trump didn't hesitate to meet — twice now — with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in an effort to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons program.
He has praised Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, which interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump also remains allied with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is under pressure over the killing of a Saudi activist who lived in the United States and wrote articles criticizing the kingdom.
In 2017, Trump met in Manila with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has attacked U.S. security policies and launched a crackdown on illegal drugs that has claimed the lives of thousands of mostly poor drug suspects. Duterte has sought Chinese infrastructure funding, trade and investment, has reached out to Russia and has threatened to end the presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces in the country, although that has not happened.
Also in 2017, during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit with Trump in Washington, Erdogan's bodyguards attacked peaceful protesters gathered outside the Turkish ambassador's residence. Security officers guarding the authoritarian leader of Turkey, a member of NATO, hit and kicked the demonstrators, who wound up with injuries including concussions, broken and loose teeth, and a popped blood vessel in the eye.
Associated Press writer Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco contributed to this report.