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Trump meets with Hungary's leader, Viktor Orbán, continuing his embrace of autocrats

Former President Donald Trump met Friday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as the likely Republican presidential nominee continued his embrace of autocratic leaders who are part of a global pushback against democratic traditions.

Orbán has become an icon to some conservative populists for championing what he calls “illiberal democracy,” replete with restrictions on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights. But he’s also cracked down on the press and judiciary in his country and rejiggered the country’s political system to keep his party in power while maintaining the closest relationship with Russia among all European Union countries.

In the U.S., Trump’s allies have embraced Orbán’s approach. On Thursday, as foreign dignitaries milled through Washington, D.C., ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Orbán skipped the White House and instead spoke at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank overseeing the 2025 Project, the effort to create a governing blueprint for Trump’s next term.

“Supporting families, fighting illegal migration and standing up for the sovereignty of our nations. This is the common ground for cooperation between the conservative forces of Europe and the U.S.,” Orbán wrote on X, formerly Twitter, after his Heritage appearance.

He then flew to Florida, where met Trump late Friday afternoon at the former president’s beachfront compound, Mar-a-Lago. Orbán posted on his Instagram account footage of him and his staff meeting with Trump and the former president's staff, then of the prime minister walking through the compound and handing Melania Trump a giant bouquet of flowers.

In the video, Trump praised Orbán to a laughing crowd. “He’s a non-controversial figure because he says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and that’s the end of it. Right?” Trump said of the Hungarian prime minister. "He’s the boss.”

The Trump campaign said late Friday that the two men discussed “a wide range of issues affecting Hungary and the United States, including the paramount importance of strong and secure borders to protect the sovereignty of each nation.”

Campaigning Friday in Pennsylvania, Biden said of Trump: ’You know who he’s meeting with today down in Mar-a-Lago? Orbán of Hungary, who’s stated flatly that he doesn’t thinks democracy works, he’s looking for dictatorship."

“I see a future where we defend democracy, not diminish it,” Biden added.

Orbán’s approach appeals to Trump’s brand of conservatives, who have abandoned their embrace of limited government and free markets for a system that sides with their own ideology, said Dalibor Rohac, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“They want to use the tools of government to reward their friends and punish their opponents, which is what Orbán has done,” Rohac said.

The meeting also comes as Trump has continued to embrace authoritarians of all ideological stripes. He’s praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Orbán’s government has reciprocated, repeatedly praising the former president.

On Friday, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, posted from Palm Beach, hailing Trump’s “strength” and implying that the world would be more peaceful were he still president.

“If Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States in 2020, the war in Ukraine, now in its third year, would not have broken out and the conflict in the Middle East would have been resolved much faster,” he wrote.

Orbán has served as Hungary’s prime minister since 2010. The next year, his party, Fidesz, used its two-thirds majority in the legislature to rewrite the nation’s constitution. It changed the retirement age for judges, forcing hundreds into early retirement, and vested responsibility for appointing new judges with a single political appointee who was widely accused of acting on behalf of Fidesz.

Fidesz later authored a new media law and set up a nine-member council to serve as the country’s media regulator. All nine members are Fidesz appointees, which media watchdogs say has facilitated a major decline in press freedom and plurality.

The country’s legislative lines have been redrawn to protect Fidesz members and no major news outlets remain that are critical of Orbán’s government, making it almost impossible for his party to lose elections, analysts say.

Orbán backed Trump’s reelection effort and has had frosty relations with the Biden administration, which pointedly did not invite Hungary to a summit on democracy it organized after the president took office. Hungarian officials have accused Biden’s ambassador to the country, former human rights lawyer David Pressman, of interfering in internal governmental affairs.

Earlier this week, Hungary objected to Biden’s choice of a former Dutch prime minister to serve as NATO’s new commander, potentially stalling the appointment.

The Hungarian leader also has enthusiastically boosted Trump’s latest presidential campaign, posting a message encouraging Trump to “keep fighting” after he was hit with the first of what would be four criminal cases against him last year. Last week, Orbán declared that a win by the former president would be “the only serious chance” for ending the war in Ukraine.

A video from the Heritage appearance posted by Orbán’s political director showed the prime minister speaking with Vivek Ramaswamy, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination before dropping out and endorsing Trump. The Hungarian leader also met with Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser who remains a vocal ally of the ex-president and is active in global populist circles.

Orbán’s visit this week comes after he signed a new National Sovereignty Law that penalizes any foreign support of political actors in Hungary, part of the prime minister’s longstanding battle against the European Union and international nonprofits criticizing his erosion of Hungary’s democracy.

“Orbán is setting up this huge barrier to anyone interfering in Hungarian elections, but Orbán’s interfering in all sorts of other countries’ elections,” said Kim Scheppele, a Princeton sociologist and Hungary expert.

Orbán is one of a small group of conservative populists who have publicly aligned themselves with U.S. conservatives trying to oust Biden in November. Last month, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and Argentine President Javier Milei spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington. Orbán was a featured speaker at the 2022 event, after which he met Trump at the former president’s New Jersey golf course.

Several conservative populists have won European elections in recent years, including in Italy and Sweden. But leaders in those countries have remained staunch opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, not battled with the European Union government or taken steps that alarm democracy advocates as Orbán has.

Scheppele said the parallels between Trump and Orbán go beyond ideology. She noted that Orbán is not very religious but has become a hero to Christian conservatives for his hardline stances, much like Trump.

The two men face a similar electoral quandary as well, she added.

“They’ve got the same problem,” Scheppele said. “How do you leverage a really solid base, which is not an actual majority, at election time?”

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Riccardi reported from Denver and Spike from Budapest. Associated Press political writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.