2021-10-04 09:00:10 Hungary’s Leader Fights Criticism in U.S. via Vast Influence Campaign

Hungary’s Leader Fights Criticism in U.S. via Vast Influence Campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence visited Hungary last month to speak at a conference on conservative social values hosted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s far-right government.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also a recent visitor. This summer, Tucker Carlson hosted his Fox News show from Hungary for a week. The American Conservative Union is planning a CPAC-style event in Budapest early next year.

These are some of the more visible recent fruits of Mr. Orban’s well-funded campaign in the United States, which has lasted a decade and now serves as a case study in how governments around the world seek to shape policies and debates in Washington, sometimes raising concerns about improper foreign influence in U.S. politics.

The main impact of the effort, carried out by a network of government offices, Washington lobbyists, Hungarian diaspora groups, educational institutions, and government-funded foundations, has been to bolster Mr. Orban’s image as a conservative leader on the global stage — and to counter his reputation as an authoritarian nationalist cozying up to Russia and China.

It has also secured some tangible, if fleeting, policy victories for Mr. Orban, including the withdrawal of a State Department grant to foster independent news media in Hungary during the Trump administration and the securing of a long-desired Oval Office meeting with President Donald J. Trump in 2019.

In Washington, much of what the Hungarian network has done is legal and standard operating procedure. However, some of its activities raise concerns, such as transparency requirements for those acting on behalf of foreign interests, concerns about overseas efforts to sway presidential campaigns, and the ethics of think tanks accepting money from governments or their proxies.

Last year, two prominent foreign policy think tanks in Washington severed ties with the Hungary Foundation, a government-funded organization in Hungary, due to concerns about its connections.

In addition, after learning of Mr. Orban’s ties, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign distanced itself from a volunteer policy adviser. According to people familiar with the situation, the campaign referred the matter to the F.B.I.

The network’s efforts can be traced back to 2011, the year Mr. Orban was elected Prime Minister for the second time. According to government documents, as part of his efforts to raise his global profile, he convened people with ties to Hungary from around the world in a Diaspora Council, whose purpose was “to assist in developing a coordinated representation of the Hungarian position and interests in foreign media and toward decision makers.”

U.S. organizations that have played roles in the influence network were among the groups represented on the roster of attendees at the council’s first meetings.

Maximilian N. Teleki, the leader of one of the council’s participants, has been active in Democratic politics for many years. He organized an informal Hungarian-Americans for Biden campaign, donated $1,715 to the campaign, and served on its volunteer European foreign policy group.

According to emails obtained by The New York Times, in August 2020, Brian P. McKeon, a foreign policy adviser to the Biden campaign who is now a top official in the State Department, informed Mr. Teleki that the campaign had “received several reports and expressions of concern about your having connections” to Mr. Orban’s government and political party, Fidesz.

Mr. McKeon wrote that the campaign was “not in a position to determine the veracity of these reports,” but that “we believe it is best, for the sake of the campaign, that you step back from your participation” in the foreign policy advisory network, which included hundreds of volunteers.

The warning came as Mr. Biden’s campaign was taking precautions to avoid comparisons to 2016, when Russia interfered in the election to try to help Mr. Trump.

Mr. Teleki responded, “I can unequivocally state that I have had no substantive contacts with ANY members of the Hungarian government or Fidesz since I began working” on the advisory group, distancing himself from Mr. Orban.

According to people familiar with the situation, Mr. Teleki resigned from the policy group, and campaign officials reported their concerns to the F.B.I. It is unclear whether an investigation is currently underway.

Mr. Teleki continued to interact with the Biden team on occasion, including assisting in the organization of a campaign policy briefing on Zoom for people with ties to Central and Eastern European countries.

Maximilian N. Teleki is a Democrat with political experience in the Hungarian diaspora.

Mr. Teleki participated in an off-the-record call hosted by the White House last month, during which he asked a question about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, an issue that Mr. Orban has used against Ukraine.

Frank Koszorus Jr., a prominent figure in the Hungarian diaspora, said there had been discussions about efforts to improve the bilateral relationship under Mr. Biden.

Mr. Koszorus, who had registered to lobby for the Hungarian embassy in the 1990s and early 2000s, said, “People are interested in contacts with Democrats as well as Republicans.”

He was also the chairman of the American Hungarian Federation until recently. The group urged Mr. Trump’s administration to reconsider a State Department grant aimed at promoting free press in Hungary. The grant was criticized by Mr. Orban’s allies as an example of Washington meddling in their affairs.

In order to fund some of the efforts in the United States, Mr. Orban’s government authorized the establishment and funding of the Hungary Foundation in 2012.

It gave more than $5.2 million to think tanks, conservative groups, colleges, and Hungarian-American organizations through the end of last year, including $1.3 million to groups previously led by Mr. Teleki and Mr. Koszorus, to fund conferences, fellowships, and cultural programs.

Some of the foundation’s more prominent board members, including former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and diplomat Kurt D. Volker, resigned in 2014 and 2015, fearing that the organization would be required to register as an agent of the Hungarian government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The act mandates the disclosure of lobbying or public relations campaigns conducted in the United States on behalf of specific foreign interests.

The Justice Department issued an advisory opinion in late 2015 stating that the foundation could be exempt from FARA registration as long as its activities were limited to “bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts,” and it did not engage in lobbying or public relations.

In 2016, Mr. Volker and Mr. Pataki returned to the board, and the foundation hired a new executive director, Anna Smith Lacey, a former congressional liaison at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington.

The foundation and Ms. Smith Lacey were quickly engaging with US officials and policy debates in ways that appeared to put the language in the Justice Department’s opinion to the test.

Ms. Smith Lacey, a Hungarian citizen whose father is a prominent government official in the country, attended one of a series of meetings about Central Europe held at the State Department by a Trump appointee with representatives of regional organizations. She also attended exclusive gatherings with US officials in charge of Central Europe hosted by foundation grantees such as the Atlantic Council and the Center for European Policy Analysis, both of which had received more than $200,000 from the Hungary Foundation.

Ms. Smith Lacey pushed back against claims that democratic governance was eroding in Hungary at an Atlantic Council panel in 2019 and accused the US and other Western countries of hypocrisy, claiming that they treated immigrants, Jews, and Christians poorly. She linked Mr. Orban’s agenda to Mr. Trump’s American nationalism.

Ms. Smith Lacey stated that her attendance at the State Department meeting had nothing to do with her role with the foundation, and that the foundation grants had nothing to do with the Atlantic Council conference.

However, in 2019, the Atlantic Council and the Hungary Foundation announced a collaboration to hold private strategy retreats with US and Hungarian policymakers and experts.

A delegation from the Atlantic Council visited Budapest a few months after the conference to lay the groundwork for the retreats, which the council envisioned as a forum for discussion of issues such as the erosion of the rule of law and press freedom.

According to the Atlantic Council, a meeting at the foreign ministry turned confrontational, with Hungarian officials insisting that the topics be limited to less contentious issues such as trade and energy. A request for comment from the Hungarian government was not responded to.

Ms. Smith Lacey’s foundation informed the council following the meeting that the Hungarian government was no longer interested in the project.

“Our board has decided that the project was not a good fit for us due to FARA considerations,” Ms. Smith Lacey told The Times in an email.

However, Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland who was on the trip as an Atlantic Council scholar, said he was left with the impression that Mr. Orban’s government made the decision.

“The question is, and it is a reasonable question, did they want to move to the center and have us help sort of validate that kind of move, or did they want to stay on the hard right and simply use us as cover?” In an interview, Mr. Fried stated. “If Orban was looking for a way to return to a center-right position, this would have been one option. But, in my opinion, he was uninterested. He was planning on going all in on hard right?”

According to Hungarian and US government documents, the Atlantic Council returned a $158,000 grant for the retreats last year and ended its relationship with the Hungary Foundation, which had been funded almost entirely by $21 million in grants from the Hungarian government.

According to people familiar with the situation, the Center for European Policy Analysis also ended its relationship with the foundation due to concerns about its ties to Mr. Orban’s government as well as a potential conflict between Mr. Volker’s roles as a board member of the foundation and a fellow at the center.

Ms. Smith Lacey denied that the foundation was part of a Hungarian government influence operation, stating that “our mission is cultural, educational, and scholastic.” We are not a lobbying group. There are lobbying firms in Hungary. That is not something I am interested in at all.”

Mr. Orban’s government has paid more than $4.5 million to lobbyists since May 2012.

In 2013 and 2014, his office paid $83,000 to a well-connected Washington lobbying firm that had partnered with a consulting firm managed by a former cabinet minister in his government who was serving as CEO of the Hungary Foundation.

Mr. Orban’s office hired Connie Mack IV, a Republican from Florida who had previously served in Congress until 2013.

Mr. Orban’s government paid $3.4 million to firms run by Mr. Mack over the next few years, including one that partnered with an Orban-backed Hungarian think tank.

Mr. Mack was instrumental in gaining support for withdrawing a State Department media grant that Mr. Orban’s allies had opposed.

Following the expiration of Mr. Mack’s contract, the Hungarian government signed a contract with Policy Impact Strategic Communications, a firm run by William Nixon, a veteran Republican lobbyist, for $265,000 in lobbying and public relations assistance in 2018 and 2019. It had previously assisted in the formation of a group called the Hungarian American Institute, which organized a visit to Washington by Hungarian legislators.

Mr. Carlson’s father serves on the boards of both Policy Impact and the Hungarian American Institute. Mr. Carlson, the elder, does not appear to be involved in his son’s coverage of Mr. Orban’s government.

However, Policy Impact was instrumental in laying the groundwork. The firm introduced the younger Mr. Carlson to the Hungarian ambassador, arranged an interview with Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade on Mr. Carlson’s show in 2019, and assisted in arranging meetings with Hungarian officials for a Fox News producer who traveled to Budapest in 2019 to research Mr. Orban’s agenda.

When asked about the lobbying firm’s efforts, Mr. Carlson responded via text message, “none of this is relevant to anything,” adding that he interviewed Mr. Orban because he was impressed by the Hungarian leader’s immigration policies.

The Danube Institute, another Hungarian government-funded organization, has provided fellowships for Western conservatives and arranged and paid for Mr. Sessions’ speech in Budapest last month, which he said was promised a modest fee.

During his speech, Mr. Pence praised Mr. Orban’s social agenda while also urging a tough stance against China, an uneasy issue given Mr. Orban’s growing alignment with Beijing. His appearance was made at a conference hosted by Hungary’s Minister of Family.

The minister was among the Hungarians who met with officials from the American Conservative Union in Washington as the organization considered holding an installment of its Conservative Political Action Conference in collaboration with the Budapest-based Center for Fundamental Rights, another organization linked to the Hungarian government.

“It certainly appears that the government wishes to collaborate with us,” said Matt Schlapp, president of the conservative union.

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Hungary’s Leader Fights Criticism in U.S. via Vast Influence Campaign