WASHINGTON – Just 10 days before a key meeting on Ukraine, President Donald Trump met, over the objections of his national security adviser, with one of the former Soviet republic’s most virulent critics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and heard a sharp assessment that bolstered his hostility toward the country, according to several people informed about the situation.
Trump’s conversation with Orban on May 13 exposed him to a harsh indictment of Ukraine at a time when his personal lawyer was pressing the new government in Kiev to provide damaging information about Democrats. Trump’s suspicious view of Ukraine set the stage for events that led to the impeachment inquiry against him.
The visit by Orban, who is seen as an autocrat who has rolled back democracy, provoked a sharp dispute within the White House. John Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, and Fiona Hill, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Eurasian and Russian affairs, opposed a White House invitation for the Hungarian leader, according to the people briefed on the matter. But they were outmaneuvered by Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, who supported such a meeting.
As a result, Trump, at a critical moment in the Ukraine saga, sat down in the Oval Office with a European leader with a fiercely negative outlook on Ukraine that fortified opinions he had heard from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and from President Vladimir Putin of Russia repeatedly over the months and years.
Echoing Putin’s view, Orban has publicly accused Ukraine of oppressing its Hungarian minority. His government has accused Ukraine of being “semi-fascist” and sought to block important meetings for Ukraine with the European Union and NATO.
Ten days after his meeting with Orban, Trump met on May 23 with several of his top advisers returning from the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The advisers reassured Trump that Zelensky was a reformer who deserved U.S. support. But Trump expressed deep doubt, saying that Ukrainians were “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” during the 2016 presidential election.
Orban’s visit came up during testimony to House investigators last week by George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine policy. The meeting with Orban and a separate May 3 phone call between Trump and Putin are of intense interest to House investigators seeking to piece together the back story that led to the president’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats.
Kent testified behind closed doors that another government official had held the two episodes up to him as part of an explanation for Trump’s darkening views of Zelensky last spring, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
Kent did not have firsthand knowledge of either discussion, and it was not clear if the person who cited them did either.