Former US ambassador to Hungary is lobbying Trump to hire Orbán's elusive strategist

May 08. 2023. – 05:06 PM


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Former US ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein is actively lobbying former president Donald Trump to hire the elusive strategist of Hungary PM Viktor Orbán, Árpád Habony for his 2024 presidential campaign, Telex has learned.

We tried to get our scoop confirmed by Hungarian and American sources in the past weeks. American news site Axios managed to get the information confirmed by two people within the Trump campaign, that Cornstein is indeed pushing them to hire Orbán's adviser. However, the campaign has no plans to hire Habony, Axios has learned.

We tried to reach David Cornstein for comment via e-mail. We will update our story once we get a reply. We also tried to reach Árpád Habony, but we have been unsuccessful so far.

This wouldn't be the first time for Habony, the architect of the Hungarian government's successful anti-migrant campaign and their utility bill cuts campaign introduced in 2013, to advise foreign politicians. In 2015, Habony founded a consulting company together with Orbán's other infamous campaign strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, who passed away in 2017. Danube Business Consulting Ltd. was registered in London and in the past eight years they advised a number of foreign campaigns.

Árpád Habony in 2013 – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI
Árpád Habony in 2013 – Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI

Our colleague, Gergely Brückner previously uncovered, while working at the Figyelő weekly newspaper, that Habony worked as an adviser on Nicolas Sarkozy's unsuccessful primary campaign in 2016.

In the past years, Habony has also been advising the Croatian right-wing Christian party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Orbán ally former Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša and former North Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski who fled to Hungary in 2018 after being sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges in his country.

Cornstein's lobbying is a surprise

According to our sources, the former US ambassador to Hungary has close ties with Donald Trump, who appointed him in 2018, and during his two-year ambassadorship in Budapest he became a big fan of Viktor Orbán. He organised the White House meeting between the Hungarian prime minister and the then US president that took place in 2019.

Cornstein spent last week in Budapest. He attended CPAC Hungary, a small-scale franchise event of the Republican Party superconference, CPAC and Viktor Orbán received him in his office and posted about their meeting on Facebook.

David Cornstein and Viktor Orbán – Photo: Viktor Orbán / Facebook
David Cornstein and Viktor Orbán – Photo: Viktor Orbán / Facebook

In a press release published by Hungarian state news agency MTI, Cornstein and Orbán discussed “the present and future of the relationship between Hungary and the United States, as well as the consequences of the war in Ukraine and the prospects for a ceasefire and peace deal” during their meeting.

A source who knows Cornstein personally is baffled by the former ambassador's actions. He got to know the ambassador as a “shrewd politician”, and can't imagine “why he would push the Trump campaign to hire someone who has no idea about US domestic politics”.

“A few years ago, Habony boasted that everything he knew about America, he learned from Hungarian-American film producer Andy Vajna. Vajna was talented, but he didn't know politics either,” he told Telex.

The elusive campaign guru

At the turn of the millennium, Habony was working as a furniture restorer but within ten years, he made it to the top of Hungarian politics, although, remaining in the shadows. There haven't been many ascents to power as spectacular as his in the past twenty years of Hungarian politics. By the 2010s, Habony was one of Orbán's most important confidants and governing party Fidesz's puppet master. In effect, he has become one of the most influential people in the country.

However, there has been little official confirmation from the government about exactly what kind of work Árpád Habony, known for his lavish lifestyle, does and how much he is paid for it. Viktor Orbán has denied that the Habony is contracted by the government, even though several sources have confirmed over the past year that the adviser is a key figure in the government's and Fidesz's messaging campaigns.

In an analysis of the government's successful 2015 anti-migrant campaign, Hungarian news site 444 wrote that the triad of propaganda minister Antal Rogan, Árpád Habony and Arthur Finkelstein was responsible for the government's messaging. The work was mainly led by Habony, Rogán organised public communication and Finkelstein helped them more as a kind of professional supervisor.

“The poster campaign and the idea of the fence on Hungary's southern border are attributed to Árpád Habony, but Finkelstein had a role in the formulation of the tight, negative poster messages, as in previous campaigns,” 444 wrote in 2015.

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