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Trump Welcomes Hungary's Authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, At White House


Today Hungary's prime minister got something he's long sought, a warm welcome at the White House. President Trump praised Viktor Orban for taking a tough stand on immigration.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People have a lot of respect for this prime minister. He's a respected man. And 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.

CORNISH: Human rights activists are concerned about the signals Trump is sending with this meeting, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hungarian human rights lawyer Marta Pardavi is worried about where her country is heading. She's watched Viktor Orban's government demonize groups like hers, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal services for asylum-seekers and for Hungarians.

MARTA PARDAVI: We've had clients in the past few years who've been fired from their jobs for simply expressing a political opinion that was not supportive of the current government.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Pardavi says the Orban government has been passing laws that have no place in a democracy. But she wasn't holding her breath that President Trump would raise any of that, even with a NATO ally.

PARDAVI: So it is worrying that after 30 years of, you know, the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have to worry about whether the U.S. president will still consider these democratic values important enough to raise them alongside the arms deals or the security deals.

KELEMEN: In the Oval Office, President Trump brushed off a question about democratic backsliding in Hungary, instead praising Orban as a tough-but-respected leader. Orban, who's described Syrian refugees as Muslim invaders, told reporters that he and Trump have similar approaches.


PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: 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 all around the world.

KELEMEN: Trump praised him for that, too.


TRUMP: And you have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.

KELEMEN: Viktor Orban has been seeking a White House invitation for years. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland says the Obama administration was insisting on democratic reforms first.

VICTORIA NULAND: The situation in Hungary did not improve. Orban was bound and determined to take lessons from Vladimir Putin's playbook and consolidate power and further restrict the media, et cetera. But then, when the Trump administration comes in and they try the opposite approach, the situation gets even worse.

KELEMEN: She says Orban's government sent two suspected Russian arms dealers back to Russia, denying a U.S. extradition request. And so far, Hungary has not heeded U.S. warnings about Chinese telecom companies.

NULAND: And Viktor Orban's gone in the opposite direction. The largest service center of Huawei in Europe is outside of Budapest.

KELEMEN: Another former State Department official, Rob Berschinski, who's now with Human Rights First, says today's meeting fits a pattern with Trump, who often praises authoritarian leaders.

ROB BERSCHINSKI: Everyone from the Egyptian president to the Russian president to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Erdogan in Turkey - Trump certainly sees Orban as an ideological ally. Orban was essentially running a political platform on the basis of an anti-immigration message long before Trump.

KELEMEN: Berschinski says Trump's praise for right-wing authoritarians undercuts U.S. efforts to promote human rights in places like Venezuela. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.