President Trump has long derided the members of his own intelligence community, ignoring their briefings, attacking their credibility if their findings break with his perspective, and generally preferring a cable-TV feedback loop to their expert witness. According to a report in the Washington Post, Trump has finally swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, seeking counsel from sources hoping to undermine U.S. foreign interests. Two trusted sources for forming his opinion on Ukraine were regional authoritarians with open hostility for the administration in Kiev: Hungary’s President Viktor Orbán and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
According to intelligence officials who spoke to the Post — and the closed-door testimony of State Department deputy assistant secretary George Kent — Trump consulted the pair in May, shortly after the election of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, to gauge the leaders’ feelings on his fellow entertainer turned politician:
In a May 3 call, Trump asked Putin about his impressions of Zelensky, according to a Western official familiar with the conversation. Putin said that he had not yet spoken with Zelensky but derided him as a comedian with ties to an oligarch despised by the Kremlin …
The May conversation with Putin coincided with a White House visit by Orban that many in the administration had opposed because of the Hungarian leader’s moves to undercut democratic institutions in that country and his combative relations with U.S. allies in Europe …
Senior U.S. diplomats said they had limited insight into the private conversation between Trump and Orban, let alone how Trump’s views of Ukraine have formed. But one official familiar with the encounter said that it became “clear that the meeting with Orban had solidified” Trump’s pessimistic view about Kyiv and Zelensky.
The officials who spoke with the Post mention that though Orbán and Putin disparaged Ukraine, they did not tell Trump to withhold aid in exchange for damaging information on a political rival — in the way that that good mentor sets you up with a road map for success, but not with step-by-step directions. “Trump’s decision to seek damaging material on Biden was more directly driven by Trump’s own impulses and Kyiv conspiracy theories promoted by his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani,” the Post states.
The president’s seeking of advice in all the wrong places is disconcerting on an immediate level, as Trump continues to conveniently align foreign policy with Russian interests. But confiding in Putin and Orbán — who successfully clamped down on press freedom, stoked anti-immigrant fears, and carved a barbed-wire fence into Hungary’s southern border — shows just how deep Trump’s autocratic desires are. “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that [Trump] would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t,” Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, told the Atlantic in June. You are the Eastern European company you keep.
Trump’s autocratic friends also reveal just how vulnerable the administration is to the president’s unofficial advisers, as he prioritizes Giuliani-pushed conspiracies and big-picture recommendations from anti-democratic leaders. “Over time you just see a wearing down of the defenses,” a former White House official told the Post, adding that the Orbán-Putin rec is “an example of the president himself under malign influence — being steered by it.” Democrats agree: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that the president’s actions “ threaten our national security.”