David Cornstein has served as US Ambassador to Budapest since summer 2018. He’s been working on repairing the US–Hungary relations that went sour in 2014.
His most important accomplishment to date has been to facilitating the Trump–Orban meeting which took place on Monday. He personally sat in on the second half of that meeting.
Shortly after returning to Budapest, Cornstein spoke to 444 about what happened at the White House.
Some sources said of yesterday’s meeting that it was a little bit longer than planned. Is that true? If so, can you explain why the meeting lasted longer?
I think it was a little longer. There were two meetings. The first meeting was in the Oval Office with the President and the Prime Minister. Also, not in the picture but in the room were John Bolton and Peter Szijjarto. The rest of us were not in the room. We were waiting in the Cabinet room.
That meeting, when you’re waiting in a room to go in, it seems like it’s a little longer than it actually is. But I would say it was probably about a 15 minute meeting, give or take a little.
The next meeting, which I attended, I can tell you was a good 45 minutes. So it probably ran 10-15 minutes longer than was scheduled. And that was not planned. To be very frank with you, it’s the style of the President of the United States. He loves meeting people and is very inquisitive and had a lot of questions, so it ran a little longer.
Ever since President Trump’s inauguration, people were wondering when he would invite Viktor Orban to the White House because he was the first European leader to endorse then-candidate Trump. Why is it that the meeting took place now?
I arrived here at beginning of July, and during July and August, as you know, it isn’t easy to find government officials. So it was in September that I first started to meet the government leaders. Prior to my arrival, American leadership did not pay any attention to this government. That was the Obama approach. But President Trump’s attitude is this is a NATO ally and a friend, and we have a big history together and we should have a relationship with this country.
So as I started to make the rounds. The first thing I wanted to do was show that America had changed its mind and its heart toward Hungary. A lot of people, important people from the United States, started coming over to visit Hungary, the last being Secretary Pompeo, and a lot of Cabinet people before that.
So we showed that we have changed how we are going to treat this wonderful country that I’ve learned to love so much.
We hoped, in return, that we could see some gestures from Hungary toward the United States. There have been some very positive events that have taken place from Hungary toward the United States, so it just evolved to the point where these two leaders could get together. I had recommended the meeting, the President accepted it, and an invitation was extended to the Prime Minister.
Was it a fruitful meeting?
Ambassador Cornstein: I think the meeting accomplished exactly what it intended to accomplish. These two leaders have great respect for each other based on what they know about each other, but they have never met. So I wanted to facilitate an atmosphere for these two strong leaders to develop a personal relationship, which, in turn, could strengthen further cooperation.
This wasn’t going to be a meeting with a concrete agenda, one where they would go over a list of issues over the agenda. It was about them getting to know each other and move that relationship further down the road.
So they just spoke generally about world affairs? The meeting was not primarily about issues concerning Hungarian–American cooperation?
Ambassador Cornstein: Everything was touched upon. Immigration was touched upon, where they have a similar feeling of border control. The purchase of weapons was touched upon. Expanding our trade was touched upon. But again, in a very cursory way. It wasn’t an in-depth discussion about any of these subjects, just areas that we have a shared concerns and we should work together to resolve these issues. The main thing was to establish the relationship that hopefully continue in the future.
Over the past six months, two American cabinet members, Rick Perry and Mike Pompeo, visited Budapest and raised the issue of Hungary needing to resolve its energy dependence on Russia. At the same time, Rosatom and Gazprom’s presidents also visited Hungary this year. Did this issue come up during the meeting? Does the US government see any progress being made on this issue?
As I’ve said, this was not a specific meeting of any one, two or three subjects. Energy was mentioned, but again, it wasn’t an explicit theme of the meeting. There was no discussion of how should we move forward and solve this issue.
I have had many discussions with people in the United States and explained to them that Hungary and the United States are in complete agreement that Hungary needs some energy diversification. They can’t have 85 percent of their energy come from one country. It’s bad.
And we are working together to see how we can get the Romanian-Exxon Pipeline to fruition, and we’re working together to hopefully see some liquified gas come in through Croatia. Until now, transportation was the primarily problem with LNG, which made it more expensive, but I just learned that thanks to the United States’s efforts, the price of LNG has been driven down. We will continue working on diversification and we’ll resolve that issue.
How do you see the Black Sea gas project? Is the main problem the legal changes introduced in Romania last December, or is it the dispute between Hungary’s energy regulator and Austria’s OMV?
Ambassador Cornstein: These problems are certainly present. And I’m trying to work with everyone on the American side to help find a solution for these issues. I’m convinced that Romanian gas is the most important and plays the biggest role in diversification, and that if the extraction starts, it would change the atmosphere in Hungary and around Central Europe. I’ve spoken to many different Secretaries, but wasn’t the theme of the meeting. Hopefully it will be in the follow-up.
Two weeks ago, Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, encouraged the Hungarian government to end it’s boycott of Ukraine’s high-level meetings with NATO, and to start find a forum other than NATO where it can resolve its concerns regarding the Hungarian minority. Was this discussed?
Ukraine was brought up. The United States has been a great supporter of Ukraine — militarily, financially, and in humanitarian efforts. Our hearts go out to the over 10,000 lives that have now been lost in Ukraine. So we have a sincere feeling for the Ukrainian people.
We also understand the position of the Prime Minister and the government, that there’s 150,000–175,000 Hungarian people that are living inside of Ukraine. We sympathize with Hungary on its position that the law really changed the situation for people that have spoken Hungarian their whole lives, to come in and now say every course, every class has to be taught in Ukrainian and their affairs must be managed Ukrainian.
I believe that the Orban government is a little more optimistic now about the future of Ukraine with the new leadership coming in. They feel that they will be able to work with them. We are going to help in any way we can.
But I have stated many times I don’t agree with the linkage of the law with NATO. Having a buffer between Russian forces and the Hungarian border is something that’s in the interest of this country.
You mentioned a weapons purchase was also discussed. Could you elaborate?
We discussed weapons and trade. We started from the position that NATO allies, including Hungary, have committed to raise defense spend to 2 percent of GDP. At the meeting, Prime Minister Orban stated that Hungary’s expects to reach that level sooner than expected.
In our opinion, it would be wise move to purchase NATO compatible armaments, and maybe I’m a little prejudiced. I think that American weapons are pretty good and that the are worth consideration.
Dr Maroth and I visited Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and I think both visits were very persuasive. We hope Hungary will purchase weapons from both companies.
Speaking in China last month, Viktor Orban said that no one could stop him from building a good relationship with China. Did this issue come up?
Again, there wasn’t an issue of weapons, an issue of China, an issue of Russia. It wasn’t that type of a meeting. It was a relationship-building meeting.
What is obvious is that Hungary has become a very attractive country. People are happy to come to Hungary, and the Hungarian prime minister is visits other world leaders, such as Russia, China, and the United States. And the US understands that these are important relationships.
These two leaders are really very similar in a lot of ways. So this relationship I really think is going to develop in a good fashion going forward. I believe that the Prime Minister’s heart and mind is with NATO and with the West more than anywhere else. But if I were him, I would also pay attention to the other leading countries in the world as well, as he is.
Trump is famous for loving to make deals, and foreign policy deals, and he hasn’t spoken spoken at lengths about values. Was there any discussion of some sort of deal during the meeting? What can Hungary expect?
Absolutely not. Again, that was not the tone of this meeting. And it wasn’t my tone either, as I came over. I didn’t come here and say look, I’m going to have the Secretary or congressman come visit this country unless you do this or that. That wasn’t the approach, and it isn’t the approach of the President of the United States.
I think that at the end of the meeting it was clear what these two guys are all about. At the end of the meeting, President Trump told Orban, “You know, it’s like we’re twins! Not everybody might agree or like us, but look at the results that we’re getting.” And that’s who this President is. He’s concentrating on results. And if that’s what you mean by the deal, that he’s interested in seeing results go forward, then yes, he’s interested. And he feels if you have the right relationship with the people you’re dealing with, no matter who it is, you have a better chance of getting better results than if you have no relationship whatsoever.
Bilateral relations were different a few years ago. For instance, five years ago the US government used Proclamation 7750 to ban six Hungarians from traveling to the United States. Do you know whether these bans are still in effect?
I learned a long time ago that if I really don’t know the subject, I don’t give an answer. So this is one! You got one I can’t give you an answer on. If you’ll forgive me, but I really can’t address that.
What was the feeling in the US after the meeting?
I think the meeting accomplished exactly what it hoped to accomplish. I haven’t been to so many of these types of meetings myself, but I was told that the Hungarians had a pretty large audience of representatives.
Besides the President, of course, we also had the Vice President. We had the new designated Secretary of Defense, Pat Shanahan; we had Mick Mulvaney, who is the Chief of Staff of the President; John Bolton who is the head of National Security; Sarah Sanders, who probably has the toughest job in the government being the Press Secretary. My old friend Larry Kudlow who is the Economic Advisor to the President was also present. Secretary Pompeo, as you know, was in Europe, so he was represented by his Deputy Secretary John Sullivan. Rick Perry was also out of the country, but his Deputy Secretary was there. And then last I was also there.
So they had a pretty good representation of the United States government that wanted to meet Viktor Orban, hear what he had to say, and see how this can proceed going further.