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Trump Lavishes Praise on Orban During Fete at Mar-a-Lago

(Bloomberg) -- Former US President Donald Trump praised Viktor Orban as a “fantastic leader” while poking fun at criticism of the Hungarian prime minister’s self-proclaimed illiberal tendencies as the two populist leaders met Friday at Mar-a-Lago.

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Orban “is a non-controversial figure because he says, ‘this is the way it’s going to be,’ and that’s the end of it,” Trump joked to a room full of attendees at his Florida resort, according to video of the event posted by Orban on Instagram. “Right? He’s the boss. No - he’s a great leader, fantastic leader.”

Trump feted Orban with a tour of his residence, dinner with former first Lady Melania Trump, an hour-long meeting with senior aides, and musical performance by a band covering Roy Orbison.

The meeting is a defiant act by Trump just a day after President Joe Biden in his State of the Union address accused his presumptive November opponent and Republicans of turning their backs on democratic ideals by blocking additional assistance for Ukraine.

Biden criticized the planned get-together directly at a political rally in Philadelphia earlier Friday, saying Orban “doesn’t think democracy works” and was “looking for dictatorship.”

Orban has in the past urged the West to cut off financing for Ukraine, which he has said is the quickest way to force Kyiv to negotiate a cease-fire with Russia.

The Biden administration has criticized Orban over his friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met last October in China, as well as legislation in Hungary that the State Department warned could “intimidate and punish” critics of Orban’s government.

Read More: Hungary’s $4.9 Billion Deficit Shows Orban’s Fiscal Challenge

Trump during his presidency sought to cultivate closer ties with Putin, even saying he believed the Russian leader’s denial of interference in the 2016 presidential election over the conclusions of US intelligence services.

The former US president last month denounced the Biden administration’s request for billions in new funds for Ukraine, saying lawmakers should attach conditions to the assistance or structure the aid as a loan.

Friday’s meeting was expected to sow further concern across Europe, where leaders are already sounding the alarm over Ukraine’s ability to maintain its war effort without more US assistance and bracing for Trump’s possible return to power. Trump has said he told a NATO ally during his presidency that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that did not meet the alliance’s defense spending obligations.

“We all want peace, but nobody decent would agree to the peace on the conditions set out by Moscow and Putin,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is expected to meet Biden at the White House on Tuesday, told reporters in Bucharest this week.

Kindred Spirits

The former American president has praised Orban as a “strong leader.” The prime minister has cultivated a strongman image in Hungary and used his veto power to frustrate consensus efforts in the European Union.

The two men share a political narrative premised on a purported struggle against the established order and a disdain of the Biden administration, which has criticized the erosion of Hungarian democracy and Orban’s close ties to Beijing and Moscow.

“The election campaign is going at full steam here in the US,” Orban said in a Facebook video after meeting Trump. “It’s up to the Americans to decide. But let’s be honest, it would be best for the world and for Hungary if Donald Trump returned to the presidency.”

For Orban, Friday’s meeting was a chance to shed his black-sheep image and position himself as a potential bridge between Europe and the US, should Trump win the November election. While leaders from around Europe are renewing connections with Trump’s team, few have the direct line and air of camaraderie that Orban has with the former president.

Orban’s government for years has cultivated ties with Trump allies. Hungary has hosted satellite Conservative Political Action Conferences, with another one planned for April, and cultivated right-wing influencers such as Tucker Carlson.

After the meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Orban repeated his claims that a Trump victory would help achieve peace in Ukraine and the Middle East.

The Hungarian leader, known as a political risk-taker, was the first European premier to endorse Trump during his first presidential campaign. He’s also called for Trump’s return in 2024 and dismissed court cases against the former president as a “witch-hunt,” which mirrors how Orban has cast EU probes of democratic backsliding in Hungary.

--With assistance from Piotr Skolimowski and Andras Gergely.

(Adds Hungarian prime minister’s quote in 14th paragraph.)

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