President Trump hosted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the White House on Monday, a gesture that two past presidents have avoided granting to the hard-right European leader.
"People have a lot of respect for this Prime Minister," said the president in a photo-op in the Oval Office before their meeting. Trump went on to warmly praise the Hungarian leader. "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."
Orbán is on record calling Syrian refugees "Muslim invaders," and many human rights activists are concerned about the signals Trump is sending with this meeting, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports:
"Hungarian Human Rights Lawyer Marta Pardavi is worried about where her country is heading. She's watched Victor Orbán's government demonize groups like hers — the Hungarian Helsinki Committee--which provides legal services for asylums seekers and for Hungarians.
" '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,' she says.
"Pardavi says the Orbán 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."
Trump said he and Orbán would discuss trade and NATO issues as he brushed off a question from a reporter about democratic backsliding in Hungary.
"Don't forget they're a member of NATO, and a very good member of NATO," Trump said.
For his part, Orbán reminded reporters "that so many Hungarians contributed to the tremendous progress of the United States."
"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," Orbán added.
Orbán had not visited the White House under Presidents Obama or Bush.
Trump's meeting with Orbán fits a pattern, former State Department official Rob Berschinski told NPR's Kelemen.
"Everyone from the Egyptian president to the Russian president to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Erdogan in Turkey. Trump certainly sees Orbán as an ideological ally. Orbán was essentially running a political platform on the basis of an anti-immigration message," said Berschinski, now a senior vice president at Human Rights First.
Franklin Foer, staff writer for The Atlantic, describes how Hungary had been considered "one of the great success stories of post-Soviet times."
"It was a country that made its way into the European Union, that created democratic institutions, that housed a robust press," Foer said in an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro."But over the term of Viktor Orbán's presidency, the institutions have started to weaken and then disappear. And public opinion has started to shift."
"The week that I was in Hungary, CNN published a poll showing that Hungarians had become the most anti-Semitic country in the whole of Europe," Foer said. "One of the pro-government publications published a magazine that had a cover featuring the head of the Jewish federation. And his face was put against a black backdrop, and money was raining down."
Before their meeting, Trump underscored Orbán's defense of Christianity.
"You have been great with respect to Christian communities," Trump said. "You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much."