Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, (left) and US President Donald Trump. Picture: DANIEL MIHAILESCU/SAUL LOEB / AFP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, (left) and US President Donald Trump. Picture: DANIEL MIHAILESCU/SAUL LOEB / AFP

Washington  — President Donald Trump prepared to  meet Hungary's nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán,  at the White House on Monday  despite bipartisan objections from Congress, as the US seeks to steer the Central European nation and Nato  member away from Russia and China.

Orbán — an early backer of Trump’s 2016 bid for president and his “America First” mantra — has also campaigned against migrants and sought to test the influence of international institutions. He has declared Hungary an “illiberal” democracy and enacted crackdowns on the press and limits on elections and the judiciary.

Orbán has been in office since 2010 but never had a White House meeting with President Barack Obama. His visit comes only after Trump met the leaders of the other three former communist states in the Visegrad region — Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

White House officials say the US government has repeatedly raised governance concerns with Hungary. They say the visit is important as Trump seeks to pull Hungary back from recent alignments with Russia, reward members of Nato that increase their commitments to defence, limit China’s global reach through 5G networks and sell US weapons overseas.

Hungary has been in talks about purchasing military equipment from a US supplier. During secretary of state Michael Pompeo’s February visit, Hungary confirmed it considering buying a US medium-range air-defence system. The nation was also reported to have floated the idea of buying Lockheed Martin fighters once its lease of Swedish-made Gripen jets expires in 2026.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, a bipartisan group of US senators on the Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Trump to ask him to urge Orbán to return to the democratic roots and values that defined Hungary’s post-Cold War relationship with the US and Europe.

“Hungary has experienced a steady corrosion of freedom, the rule of law and quality of governance,” said the May 10 letter signed by Republicans James Risch of Idaho, the committee chairman, and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

The senators said they are “profoundly concerned” about the close relationship between Orbán and Russia, which has allowed Vladimir Putin’s government to evade US sanctions and extraditions.

While recognising Hungary’s security role in Nato, the senators urged Trump “to not diminish the importance of democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest”.