Did Donald Trump Jr just break the law during his meeting with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban?

Exclusive: Experts say the former president’s son may have violated the Logan Act during his visit to Budapest this week, Katie Hawkinson reports

Thursday 13 June 2024 21:34 BST
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Donald Trump Jr, four months after being hit with a $4 million fine and a ban on serving as an officer of a New York company for two years, is seeking opportunities elsewhere — namely, Hungary.

The former president’s eldest child arrived in Budapest on Thursday morning on an invitation from the Budapest Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There, he met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and gave a talk entitled “The World According to Donald Trump Jr.,” an event first reported by Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi.

Trump Jr’s visit focused on discussions about “the future of Hungarian-American relations, the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, and opportunities for peace creation,” according to Zoltan Kovacs, spokesperson for Orbán’s office.

Multiple legal experts say foreign policy discussions between Trump Jr — who is not employed by the US government — and a foreign prime minister raise questions about the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized diplomatic activity in certain circumstances.

Experts also tell The Independent the Hungarian government’s increasingly authoritarian tilt may serve as a model for Trump’s potential second presidency, should he win the election this November — and that Americans should pay attention as his eldest son speaks not only to Orbán but a prominent conservative college with ties to Orbán’s Fidesz party.

The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Independent.

Donald Trump Jr (left) met with Viktor Orbán (right) on June 13.
Donald Trump Jr (left) met with Viktor Orbán (right) on June 13. (Zoltan Kovacs)

The Logan Act

Trump Jr — who met with Orbán to discuss immigration, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and US-Hungarian relations — followed in his father’s footsteps. The former president met with Orbán in March.

But Kim Scheppele, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University and Faculty Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says this raises legal questions about Trump Jr’s role.

“There is an interesting US legal question about whether private citizens can attempt to influence US foreign policy by negotiating with foreign countries,” Scheppele told The Independent. “The Logan Act makes this illegal.”

Specifically, Trump Jr, who does not hold any government office, spoke with Orbán regarding US foreign policy as it relates to Ukraine.

Yet, the Logan Act states that any US citizen “without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly,” is not legally permitted to conduct “any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government” when it comes to conflict situations.

Donald Baker, former assistant attorney general at the US Department of Justice, told The Independent it is unlikely the Department would ever pursue action against anyone using the Logan Act, given no one has been convicted of violating the 1799 law:Any action by the Justice Department would be unwise because it would be jumped all over as being political, given the Act really hasn’t been regularly invoked.

But Baker said he believes Donald Trump Jr’s discussions about Ukraine raise questions: “Obviously Orbán is opposed to helping Ukraine, has blocked the EU from making a substantial payment to Ukraine, and so therefore he is an ally of the Trump people.”

An example of a Logan Act violation that could have taken place during those discussions, Baker added, would be if “Trump Jr encouraged Orbán not to release the funds” or encouraged him “to go on blocking the EU’s funds for Ukraine.”

Baker told The Independent there needs to be more consideration of the Logan Act in light of recent news: “This is a subject we ought to be discussing.”

He added that the former president’s discussion with Orbán earlier this year was also concerning under the Logan Act.

“To have the Republicans’ likely candidate taking a position on foreign policy [as it relates to Russia and Ukraine], getting close to actively opposing what the administration is doing, is a worrying situation we ought to be talking about,” Baker told The Independent.

An ultra-conservative ‘training ground’

Trump Jr was also scheduled to speak on Thursday afternoon at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a conservative Hungarian residential college. The event is not listed on the college’s public website as of Thursday.

Scheppele says the college serves as a “training ground” for members of Orbán’s Fidesz party. She said the college is where conservative leaders gather to determine how to keep the party in power.

“The MCC is a training ground for the young people who are going to go into Orbán’s government,” Scheppele told The Independent.

The MCC was founded in 1996 with private money from the Fidesz party. In 2021, The New York Times reported that Orbán had funneled $1.7 billion in government funds and assets to the college as he prepared to seek re-election the following year.

Scheppele said one of the primary functions of the MCC is to maintain Orbán’s hold on Hungary: “[The MCC] is also the idea factory for the Orbán government: ‘How can we adjust the laws so we never lose power?’”

Under Orbán, Hungary is in a democratic backslide. Freedom House rates Hungary as only “partly free,” noting the country’s anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, as well as policies “that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations.”

Viktor Orbán, pictured as he prepares to cast his ballot in the 2024 European Parliament elections, has triggered a democratic backslide in his country
Viktor Orbán, pictured as he prepares to cast his ballot in the 2024 European Parliament elections, has triggered a democratic backslide in his country (MTVA - Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund)

Like father, like son

Trump Jr’s father and the Hungarian prime minister also have a long-standing allyship.

Orbán went as far as to call the former president his “good friend” earlier this year when the duo met in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, Scheppele told The Independent, Trump — who famously threatened to become a dictator on day one of his potential second presidency — may be looking to Orbán as a model for policy.

Robert Benson, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, told The Independent it is dangerous for American voters to subscribe to “American exceptionalism” and to assume the democratic backsliding in Hungary can’t possibly happen in the US.

“I think our institutions are resilient — but that resiliency demands a careful eye,” Benson said. “We can’t take it for granted that we’re simply going to be okay. If you talk to Hungarians, they didn’t expect it to happen the way it did.”

Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán pictured together meeting in March 2024. The Hungarian Prime Minister called the former US president his ‘good friend.’
Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán pictured together meeting in March 2024. The Hungarian Prime Minister called the former US president his ‘good friend.’ (HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER'S OFFIC)

There are several parallels between Trump and Orbán’s policies.

Trump has made his far-right, anti-immigration stance clear since day one of his 2016 presidential campaign. Similarly, Orbán has expressed radical views on immigration since 2015 — and in 2022, he said he did not want Hungarians to become “peoples of mixed race.”

The pair have also both tossed aside NATO and its processes. The former president has threatened to violate NATO by allowing Russia to attack member states; meanwhile, Orbán delayed a vote on Sweden’s membership for 18 months. As a result, the country was not admitted until this year.

Both Scheppele and Benson also pointed to Project 2025, a conservative playbook for the next presidential administration. Along with replacing supposedly impartial federal officials with fellow conservatives, Project 2025 also calls for several policy revisions, such as re-adding the citizenship question to the US Census.

Orbán’s success leading an “authoritarian” government relied on “decapitating” the civil service and replacing it with his extremist allies, which mirrors the Project 2025 strategy, Scheppele told The Independent.

Wes Coopersmith, the Chief of Staff for the Heritage Foundation who oversees Project 2025, previously told The Independent that replacing employees with Republican allies if Trump is elected would be “democratic.”

“We think the most democratic way to run the administration is with folks who agree with the president, who voted for the president, who agree with his policies and want to implement that,” Coopersmith said.

The Heritage Foundation — pictured in Washington, DC — designed Project 2025, a playbook for a potential conservative presidency following the 2024 election.
The Heritage Foundation — pictured in Washington, DC — designed Project 2025, a playbook for a potential conservative presidency following the 2024 election. (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Orbán’s suddenly uncertain future

Just days ahead of Trump Jr’s scheduled visit, the European Parliament elections threw Orbán into an unprecedented, weakened position.

“Orbán, for the first time in 14 years, has a real electoral problem,” Scheppele told The Independent.

While the Fidesz party still received more votes than any other Hungarian party, they will only make up eleven of Hungary’s 21 EU delegates. What’s more, this weekend marked their worst performance since 2004 — long before Orbán’s reign began in 2010.

“I think he assumed that he was just going to, as usual, swamp the vote,” Scheppele said.

The politician responsible for bringing the Fidesz party numbers down is Péter Magyar, a former Fidesz insider who is now looking to end Orbán’s rule.

“[Orbán] is still winning, but he has lost so much support,” Scheppele said. “The fact that the emperor has no clothes is suddenly visible.”

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