By Robert Weiner and Emilie Solberg
Even as the European Parliament voted for disciplinary action against Hungary for imposing a risk to the values of the European Union, President Donald Trump is nurturing the newly developed relationship between Viktor Orban's illiberal democracy and the U.S. by deferring a $700 thousand grant to promote free speech in Hungary's media. The money is an important symbol of disrespect for a free press and courtship of Putin allies whether official or unofficial. While questions could be raised about Putin's strong relationship with Orban in trying to restore the orbit of the old Soviet Union, and what Putin may have said to Trump in private meetings, what is not debatable is Trump's admiration for strong, authoritarian leaders. Now he is putting that love in place with removal of the funding that had supported a free press in Hungary.
While Orban has faced criticism for building his illiberal Christian democracy, Putin has embraced his Hungarian peer. There is no secret that Putin, Orban and Trump all are declaring animosity to multilateral agreements, the EU, immigrants and the free press.
As in Russia, Hungarian media outlets have gradually come under the control of business associates close to Orban. Today, a majority of the regional Hungarian newspapers and TV stations are owned by people with close ties to the Fidesz party, while state media has expanded. The fact that the American president is going after the press as "the enemy of the people" shows that Trump and the anti-liberal leader have more in common than building walls and preserving nationalism.
In a time when Russia is trying to cooperate with the current US administration, the pro-Russian Orban is doing the same after being frozen out of previous US administrations. Hungary has spent millions on lobbying in Washington, where that country's previous lobbyists and diplomats failed to influence previous administrations. In 2014, Obama denied visas for six Hungarian government officials for undermining democratic values, including corruption. Now, it looks like the creeping authoritarian regime has a friend in Trump.
With 448 votes in favor, 197 against and 48 abstentions, the EU vote in September is the first time the European Parliament has taken the first steps triggering Article 7, also referred to as "the nuclear option" among the EU member states. The vote was based on a report that accuses Hungary and Viktor Orban's far-right party, Fidesz, of undermining the rule of law and the rights of refugees, as well as corruption and silencing the media.
As most of the regional Hungarian media outlets are owned by people with close ties with Hungary's prime minister, the State Department announced in November that it will fund a $700 thousand grant to media outlets in rural parts of Hungary to support free speech, fact-based journalism and increase citizens' access to objective information. However, Hungary was quick to consider the grant as a U.S. intervention ahead of their upcoming election in April.
On Aug. 15, the New York Times wrote that the State Department had deferred the $700 thousand grant. The State Department then announced that the money might be used in other parts of Europe. The Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Andreas Simonyi, called it "a huge victory" and said that it was sending a message that "Hungary is OK, that Hungary is a democracy," according to the New York Times.
While former Republican congressman Connie Mack IV has been hired to lobby on behalf of Hungary in Washington, Hungary's influence in the American capital represents a shift from other administrations. On May 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also met with the Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto, and emphasized the need to help Ukraine after Russian aggression and support their engagement with NATO.
After the 2016 election, Orban quickly addressed his support for the newly elected president, saying that the election would "radically improve the relationship between the U.S. and Hungary." Trump then called the Hungarian prime minister on June 16 to congratulate him on his victory in the election. According to a White House statement the two of them agreed on the need for strong national borders and to keep relations between the United States and Hungary strong.
While Hungary is being sanctioned by the EU for corruption and attacks on the free media, it is remarkable, yet not surprising, that the Trump administration chooses to stop a media grant that seeks to improve democratic values as free speech. In 2017, business associates close to Orban both gained new media outlets and managed to replace foreign media companies that had invested in the Hungarian media, according to Reporters Without Borders. During the summer, they managed to gain control over Hungary's three main regional newspapers.
Trump seems to embrace the more authoritarian leaders in Europe. Yet he is busy criticizing the EU, describing Germany as a "captive of Russia and the EU as a whole as a 'foe'". Both Orban and Trump, while leaders of two vastly different countries, seem to embrace similar political rhetoric, particularly when it comes to the press. Whether it's cutting off funding to newspapers or calling them the "enemy of the people," the two leaders have more in common than many are comfortable with.
Robert Weiner was a Clinton and Bush White House spokesman, and spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee. Emilie Solberg is a policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.