We Used to Oppose the Rise of Authoritarianism in Europe

In our June/July/August 2015 issue, we published an article by Eleni Kounalakis, our United States ambassador to Hungary during much of the Obama administration. The piece explored Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response to the 2010 election of Viktor Orbán. It was a story about how Clinton and her diplomats rallied to keep authoritarianism at bay in eastern Europe. Their successes in Hungary were partial and quite fragile. As the Washington Post explains, they couldn’t survive the election of Donald Trump. The United States now sides with the authoritarians.

Trump’s conversations with Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and others reinforced his perception of Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt country — one that Trump now also appears to believe sought to undermine him in the 2016 U.S. election, the officials said…

…their disparaging depictions of Ukraine reinforced Trump’s perceptions of the country and fed a dysfunctional dynamic in which White House officials struggled to persuade Trump to support the fledgling government in Kyiv instead of exploiting it for political purposes, officials said.

The government, very much including Trump’s own national security staff, has been powerless to stop this reversal.

The efforts to poison Trump’s views toward [Ukrainian President] Zelensky were anticipated by national security officials at the White House, officials said. But the voices of Putin and Orban took on added significance this year because of the departure or declining influence of those who had sought to blunt the influence of Putin and other authoritarian leaders over Trump…

…“Over time you just see a wearing down of the defenses,” a former White House official said, describing the struggle to contest the influence of Giuliani, Putin and Orban…

…American policy has for years been “built around containing malign Russian influence” in Eastern Europe, a U.S. official said. Trump’s apparent susceptibility to the arguments he hears from Putin and Orban is “an example of the president himself under malign influence — being steered by it.”

Most significantly, there was much resistance to granting a visit to Orbán, but that resistance eventually crumbled:

The May conversation with Putin coincided with a White House visit by Orban that many in the administration had opposed because of the Hungarian leader’s moves to undercut democratic institutions in that country and his combative relations with U.S. allies in Europe…

…White House and State Department officials had sought to block an Orban visit since the start of Trump’s presidency, concerned that it would legitimize a leader often ostracized in Europe. They also worried about Orban’s influence on the U.S. president.

“Basically, everyone agreed — no Orban meeting,” said a former White House official involved in internal discussions. “We were against it because [we] knew there was a good chance that Trump and Orban would bond and get along.”

Apparently, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney overruled the consensus of national security figures and green lighted the Orbán visit.

The effort to keep distance between Trump and Orban began to fray earlier this year with the departures of senior officials and the emergence of new voices around the president. Among the most important was Mulvaney, who became acting chief of staff in January and was seen as sympathetic to Orban’s hard-right views and skepticism of European institutions. In Congress, Mulvaney’s former Freedom Caucus colleagues last year backed Orban’s efforts to kill a small U.S. grant designed to nurture independent media outlets in Hungary.

Mulvaney’s involvement in approving the Orban visit was one of several instances in which he overruled national security officials, officials said.

It’s odd that the “Freedom” Caucus in Congress is opposed to a free press in Hungary, but I’m not sure they were the driving force here. Mulvaney is ultimately in charge of translating the president’s wishes into policy. If Trump wants dirt on Joe Biden, he’s going to facilitate that. If he wants a meeting with Orbán, then it doesn’t matter how many people at the State Department or the National Security Council object.

The key point is that Trump takes direction from Vladimir Putin and his quislings. Putin bad-mouths Ukraine and so Trump withholds military aid and translates a legal obligation to provide it into something that can benefit his political prospects.

As Nancy Pelosi said to his face in a recent White House meeting, with Trump, all roads lead to Putin. Every controversial decision he makes seems to benefit Russia. The decision to host Orbán is just one more piece of evidence in support of this observation.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com