A U.S. Ambassador Finds Himself on Hostile Ground in Hungary

BUDAPEST — David Pressman, a gay human rights lawyer, knew he was in for a rough time even before he arrived in Hungary with his husband and two children to take up a new job in September as the United States’ ambassador to Europe’s self-declared citadel of traditional Christian values and friend of the Kremlin.

As his confirmation hearing began in July in Washington, a rubber dinghy carrying a warning appeared on the Danube River near the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. On a black banner emblazoned with a skull and crossbones was an anti-L.G.B.T.Q. message in English and Hungarian: “Mr. Pressman, don’t terrorize Hungary with your cult of death.”

Mr. Pressman hung a photograph of that “welcome to Hungary” message on the wall behind his embassy desk. “That,” he lamented, “was before I ever stepped foot in this country.”

And it has been pretty much downhill ever since.

The ambassador, whose predecessor, appointed by Donald J. Trump, delighted his hosts by praising Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, has been savaged since his arrival — along with the Biden administration — by government-friendly media as a menace to Hungary, its people and their values.

Mr. Pressman has been accused of violating diplomatic conventions, meddling in the judiciary and trying to silence conservative voices. PestiSracok, a belligerent, pro-government news portal, denounced the appointment of a man it described as “an expert on L.G.B.T. rights” as “an obvious diplomatic provocation.” A guest on a government-controlled television talk show referred to him as “Madame Ambassador.”

More alarming than the personal attacks, Mr. Pressman said in a recent interview in Budapest, are what he sees as a broader assault on the United States in Hungarian media — most of which is either directly controlled by the governing Fidesz party or through its business allies — and a constant “repurposing of Kremlin propaganda.”

Hungary’s government-controlled media, Mr. Pressman said, regularly recycles Russian propaganda tropes, “pushing out Kremlin disinformation and anti-American rhetoric on a routine basis, and that is worrying to the United States.”

A photograph showing a rubber dinghy with an anti-L.G.B.T.Q. message for Mr. Pressman hangs in his office.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Nearly a year after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the West mobilized against him, Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, has become the closest thing the Kremlin has to an ally in the European bloc. Hungarians, polls show, are not big fans of Russia, but the din of domestic politics, focused by Fidesz on battles against “wokeism and gender ideology,” has tugged the country away from its traditionally firm strategic moorings in the West.

Before his current posting, Mr. Pressman had served as ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs and as an assistant secretary of homeland security. He also worked at the White House as director for war crimes and atrocities on the National Security Council.

Meetings with Hungarian officials, Mr. Pressman said, are usually civil and pragmatic in tone but often start with his host saying: “Ambassador, it’s wonderful to meet you. I know you want to speak about gender progressive issues.”

“I stop them and say, ‘No, actually, I want to speak to you about Hungary’s reliance on Vladimir Putin,’” he added. “They always want to have the conversation about a culture war. We want to have a conversation about a real war that exists next door.”

Mr. Orban has gone along with E.U. sanctions against Russia, but has repeatedly denounced them, refused to let weapons for Ukraine pass through Hungary and sent senior officials to Moscow to plead for more Russian natural gas just as the rest of Europe is trying to wean itself off Russian energy.

Mr. Orban’s yearslong policy of cozying up to Russia also caused friction in the past with the United States, particularly in 2018 when Hungary refused a Trump administration request for the extradition of two Russian arms dealers. It sent them to Moscow instead.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised those tensions to a new pitch.

“The world changed,” Mr. Pressman said, “and the ability to play both sides when we have an actual land war in Europe no longer exists.” He urged Hungary to return to its historic role as a country unambiguously part of the West. “The time for more clarity and more decisiveness certainly arrived when Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked war on Hungary’s democratic neighbor.”

Unlike Serbia, Hungary’s neighbor to the south, which has deep, historic ties with Russia and strong anti-American currents as a result of NATO’s United States-led bombing campaign against it in 1999, Hungary has traditionally looked favorably on the United States — except when Hungary was part of the Soviet bloc and its Communist leaders parroted Moscow-dictated propaganda.

The country’s drift into shrill anti-Americanism began when Mr. Trump lost the November 2020 presidential election. Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein, a jewelry magnate who praised Mr. Orban as “a very, very strong and good leader,” left Budapest. And as an election loomed last spring in Hungary, Fidesz ramped up criticism of American groups over money they were providing to independent media outlets that it saw as enemies of the government.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban declaring victory of his party, Fidesz, in Budapest, last year.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Fidesz won a landslide victory in the election, but has nonetheless kept up a steady barrage of attacks on so-called “dollar media” and “the dollar left,” now its standard terms of abuse for independent media and its political opponents.

After years of assailing the Hungarian-born George Soros, a Jewish American billionaire and philanthropist, as Hungary’s arch enemy, Mr. Orban and his media machine turned their fire on Washington.

“We used to be ‘agents of Soros,’ and then we suddenly became ‘agents of the United States,’” recalled Szabolcs Panyi, a prominent investigative journalist.

Particularly disturbing, Mr. Pressman said, was the release of a report by Hungary’s National Information Center, an intelligence service that reports to Mr. Orban, that purported to link dozens of American citizens in a spider’s web of alleged conspiracies supposedly aimed at toppling the prime minister. The report, the ambassador said, was worthy of Carrie Mathison, the conspiracy-obsessed C.I.A. agent in the television show “Homeland.” A new report along similar lines surfaced late last month.

“That official bodies of this government, including their intelligence services, are going to focus on American citizens, that has certainly caught our attention,” Mr. Pressman said. He added that “we will not be silent when the United States is attacked” by a NATO ally.

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Republican senators questioned Mr. Pressman’s suitability for the Budapest job during his confirmation hearings, and the American Conservative, a magazine, warned that his appointment risked pushing Hungary into the arms of China and Russia because he did not “respect” Hungary’s domestic political landscape.

Hungary holds regular gay pride marches, but the governing Fidesz party in 2021 used its large majority in Parliament to outlaw the portrayal of L.G.B.T.Q. lifestyles to minors. The government said it was trying to combat child abuse but critics accused Fidesz of equating homosexuality with pedophilia

Attacks on Mr. Pressman and the Biden administration first went into high gear after the newly arrived ambassador met with two judges from the National Judicial Council, a body that the European Union has looked to as a barrier against what it sees as government moves to neuter the independence of the judiciary.

Origo, a once independent news media outlet now in step with the government, blasted the meeting as an “unprecedentedly serious interference in the judiciary,” while other outlets fumed for days about the ambassador’s meeting as an intolerable affront by an “enemy” of Hungary. The embassy responded by posting a photograph of Mr. Orban meeting with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In a constant state of high dudgeon over what it presents as American interference in Hungarian domestic affairs, Hungary has itself frequently waded into U.S. politics, with Mr. Orban traveling to Texas in August, three months before the midterm elections, to help fire up Republican voters. Hungary’s ambassador to Washington has been a fixture at right-wing gatherings in the United States.

“So when you see all of this stuff coming after the United States or me personally or my team about interference in their domestic political process, you want to say, ‘You know, guys, you are actually campaigning in the United States for this,’” Mr. Pressman said.

Mr. Pressman posing for a portrait in front of the former National TV headquarters last month in Budapest.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Despite all of the partisan noise and bickering, the war in Ukraine has put the importance of relations between Hungary and its NATO allies in perspective. At least that is Mr. Pressman’s hope. Hungarians, he said, “don’t see their future with Russia and China.”

“I think they see their future with Europe, the West and the United States,” he added, “and I think that is a really positive basis on which we can work.”

“I’m here not to disrupt this relationship or rupture it,” Mr. Pressman said. “I’m here to repair it. And there is repair that needs to be done.”

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.

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