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Trump welcomes Hungary's far-right nationalist prime minister after past presidents shunned him

He's rolled back democratic checks on his power, mused about creating a European ethnostate and erected a razor-wire fence to keep migrants out, angering the rest of the European Union.

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Kevin Liptak
CNN — He's rolled back democratic checks on his power, mused about creating a European ethnostate and erected a razor-wire fence to keep migrants out, angering the rest of the European Union.

So why was Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Monday?

"I know he's a tough man but he's a respected man," Trump said during a friendly photo-op at the start of the talks on Monday. "Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that's OK. That's OK."

Administration officials say the invitation to the White House for talks — the first for a Hungarian prime minister in years — is part of a concerted strategy to re-engage Central European nations as Russia and China seek to exert influence in the region.

But the visit is raising questions about which leaders Trump is looking to cultivate — including a long list of global strongmen — at the expense of more traditional US allies.

Orbán was largely iced out during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both concerned about the steps he took to consolidate power and block independent media. He last visited the White House for one-on-one meetings in 2001, during his first stint as prime minister, but was refused a meeting with the President, instead resigned to meeting only with then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

Since then, he's adopted a more stridently nationalist tone — including calls to create in Hungary a homogenous society that blocks asylum seekers or other refugees.

"We must state that we do not want to be diverse," he said in a 2018 speech. "We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others."

Trump has closely monitored Orbán during his time in office — and particularly his anti-migration stance, which mirrors Trump's own. Other European leaders shunned Orbán's decision to block migrants from entering his country with a fence, but Trump has advocated his own border wall. Steve Bannon, once Trump's senior adviser, once deemed Orbán "Trump before Trump."

"We are proud to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal immigration, on terrorism and to protect and help the Christian communities around the world," Orban said in short remarks from the Oval Office.

Orbán isn't exactly being welcomed back to Washington with open arms. He was the first foreign leader to endorse Trump in his presidential bid, and has lobbied intensely for a meeting, but it took more than two years to secure a White House invite — the last of the major Central European nations to come for talks.

The delay reflected American officials' desire to discourage Hungary from further eroding democratic values. It's an issue they've raised at lower-level meetings, including when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Budapest in February.

A bipartisan group of senators wrote Trump on Friday to "express concern about Hungary's downward democratic trajectory and the implications for US interests in Central Europe," imploring him to raise the issues during his meeting.

Yet when they sit for talks in the Oval Office on Monday afternoon, officials said the President was expected to focus on arms sales and energy independence — and not the concerning practices that have earned Orbán his strongman reputation.

"I can assure you that all of these issues have been well covered with all of our Hungarian counterparts," said one senior administration official. "The point of this meeting is simply to reinforce the strategic relationship between NATO allies, the US and Hungary, not necessarily to thrash out every issue on the bilateral agenda, which we have been doing constantly for the last two years."

Several advisers have cautioned Trump about appearing overly chummy with his counterpart, believing a warm embrace could hamper the administration's efforts to keep Orbán at arms-length.

Already, however, Trump's ambassador to Hungary has created waves by suggesting the limits Orbán has placed on challenges to his power are something Trump himself would embrace.

"I can tell you, knowing the President for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn't," David Cornstein told The Atlantic last week.

The comment caught the attention of officials at the White House, who later claimed it was taken out of context. But it nevertheless illustrated the potential pitfalls of inviting a problematic pro-Trump leader the US is wary of elevating.

In general, Trump has been more willing to engage leaders the previous administration froze out because of anti-Democratic practices. Trump has cultivated ties to global strongmen such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- not to mention his two summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un or his general warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump announced during his meeting with Orbán that he would use next month's Group of 20 summit in Japan for meetings with both Putin and Xi.

The migration issue, along with Orbán's moves to consolidate control of the country's judiciary and threaten the independence of the media, has caused deep rifts with the European Union. Orbán's party was suspended in March from the EU's largest political coalition.

Trump has generated his own tiffs with the EU, namely over trade. He faces a mid-May deadline on imposing new tariffs on European autos.

This story has been updated with additional developments on Monday.

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