Just 10 days before a key meeting on Ukraine, President Donald Trump met, over the objections of his national security adviser, with one of the former Soviet republic’s most virulent critics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and heard a sharp assessment that bolstered his hostility towards the country, according to several people informed about the situation.
Mr Trump’s conversation with Mr Orban on 13 May exposed him to a harsh indictment of Ukraine at a time when his personal lawyer was pressing the new government in Kiev to provide damaging information about Democrats. Mr Trump’s suspicious view of Ukraine set the stage for events that led to the impeachment inquiry against him.
The visit by Mr Orban, who is seen as an autocrat who has rolled back democracy, provoked a sharp dispute within the White House. John Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, and Fiona Hill, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Eurasian and Russian affairs, opposed a White House invitation for the Hungarian leader, according to the people briefed on the matter. But they were outmanoeuvred by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who supported such a meeting.
As a result, Mr Trump at a critical moment in the Ukraine saga sat down in the Oval Office with a European leader with a fiercely negative outlook on Ukraine that fortified opinions he had heard from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and from President Vladimir Putin of Russia repeatedly over the months and years.
Echoing Mr Putin’s view, Mr Orban has publicly accused Ukraine of oppressing its Hungarian minority and has cast his eye on a section of Ukraine with a heavy Hungarian population. His government has accused Ukraine of being “semi-fascist” and sought to block important meetings for Ukraine with the European Union and NATO.
Ten days after his meeting with Mr Orban, Mr Trump met on 23 May with several of his top advisers returning from the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The advisers, including Rick Perry, the energy secretary; Kurt D Volker, then the special envoy for Ukraine; and Gordon D Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, reassured Mr Trump that Mr Zelensky was a reformer who deserved US support. But Mr Trump expressed deep doubt, saying that Ukrainians were “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” during the 2016 presidential election.
Mr Orban’s visit came up during testimony to House investigators last week by George P Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine policy. The meeting with Mr Orban and a separate 3 May phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Putin are of intense interest to House investigators seeking to piece together the back story that led to the president’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats.
Mr Kent testified behind closed doors that another government official had held the two episodes up to him as part of an explanation for Mr Trump’s darkening views of Mr Zelensky last spring, according to a person familiar with his testimony. A third factor cited to him was Mr Giuliani’s influence.
Mr Kent did not have first-hand knowledge of either discussion, and it was not clear if the person who cited them did either. But two other people briefed on the matter said in interviews that Mr Orban used the opportunity to disparage Ukraine with the president. The Washington Post first reported on the meeting with Mr Orban and the call with Mr Putin.
It would not be surprising that Mr Putin would fill Mr Trump’s ear with negative impressions of Ukraine or Zelensky. Mr Putin has long denied that Ukraine even deserved to be a separate nation, and he sent undercover forces into Crimea in 2014 to set the stage to annex the Ukrainian territory. Mr Putin’s government has also armed Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, fomenting a civil war that has dragged on for five years.
But allowing Mr Orban to add his voice to that chorus set off a fight inside the West Wing. Mr Bolton and Ms Hill believed that Mr Orban did not deserve the honour of an Oval Office visit, which would be seen as a huge political coup for an autocratic leader ostracised by many of his peers in Europe.
Mr Mulvaney, however, had come to respect Mr Orban from his time as a member of Congress and his involvement with the International Catholic Legislators Network, according to an administration official close to the acting chief of staff. Mr Orban has positioned himself as a champion of Christians in the Middle East, a position that earned him Mr Mulvaney’s admiration, the official said.
Another official pushing for the Mr Orban visit was David B Cornstein, the United States ambassador to Hungary, who sidestepped the State Department to help set up a White House meeting, according to a person familiar with the matter. An 81-year-old jewellery magnate and longtime friend of Mr Trump’s, Mr Cornstein told The Atlantic this year that the president envied Mr Orban. “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t,” Mr Cornstein said.
The Oval Office meeting with Mr Trump took place just four days after Mr Giuliani told The New York Times that he would travel to Ukraine to seek information that would be “very, very helpful to my client” and three days after Mr Giuliani cancelled the trip in response to the resulting criticism.
In moves that have disturbed democracy advocates and many US and European officials, Mr Orban’s government has targeted non-governmental organisations, brought most of the news media under control of his allies, undermined the independent judiciary, altered the electoral process to favour his party and sought to drive out of the country an American-chartered university founded by billionaire George Soros.
Mr Orban’s government has pressured Ukraine over what it says is discrimination and violence against ethnic Hungarians living in the western part of the country.
Mr Orban’s efforts to undermine Ukraine in Europe drew enough concern among US officials that Mr Volker, while the State Department special envoy, visited Budapest and other places to meet with Hungarian officials to encourage them to talk with their counterparts in Kiev to resolve their differences.
The New York Times
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