All Roads Lead to Budapest

The Hungarian capital is both off the beaten path and smack-dab in the middle of it all.

Three months into the Trump presidency, the Hungarian-Canadian professor András Göllner wrote a bombshell essay in the Hungarian Free Press claiming that “Budapest was the ‘bridge’ between the Trump campaign and the Russian secret service.” His three-part “Budapest Bridge” series listed a number of individuals with ties to both the Trump operation and the Hungarian capital, and raised many eyebrows on both continents.

Given the numerous mentions of Budapest in the media in 2021, I thought it would be useful to revisit Göllner’s article, and write a “Man in the Middle”-style piece—but with a place instead of a person. Why does the 15th-largest city in Europe, an eighth the size of Moscow, have such outsized importance on the world stage?

Overview

As New York City is really five separate boroughs smashed together into one giant metropolis, so Budapest comprises two distinct municipalities, one on each side of the Danube. Buda, with its eponymous castle and its Matthias Church and its Vienna Gate, is the duo’s Manhattan, while the unfortunately-named Pest, a flat plain much larger in size, is its Queens.

Budapest was established as the capital of Hungary by King Bela IV in 1244, long after the Huns left town, but a few centuries before the Turks took over. Before its glow-up in modern times, the city’s heyday was the 15th century reign of Matthias Corvinus, who famously held Vlad the Impaler hostage in his dungeon at Visegrád, a few miles upriver. Not coincidentally, Budapest is the first stop on the long journey of Jonathan Harker to visit his wealthy Transylvanian client, Count Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. (It is also the setting of Arthur Phillips’s ironically-titled 2002 novel, Prague.)

Because of its location (for Western Europeans like Stoker, a gateway to the mysterious and unknowable East), its unusual language (Hungarian is neither a Romance nor a Slavic language, but classified, rather unconvincingly, as Finno-Ugric, and unrelated to any other language spoken in Europe), and its diverse history (Romans, Huns, Magyars, Germans, Ottoman Turks, and Slavs have all controlled the city at one time or other), Budapest has always been a crossroads, a place where different people and cultures converge. This makes the city a magnet for spies—Hungary is exactly the sort of “operationally ‘soft’ EU country” Christopher Steele references in his dossier—and a logical headquarters for organized crime syndicates.

We begin our exercise with an international celebrity who died in 2008, an eccentric and reclusive American known for beating the Russians at their own game . . .

Bobby Fischer

In 1992, Fischer came out of retirement to beat Boris Spassky in what was billed as “The World Chess Championship.” Because the match was held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia—at Fischer’s insistence—his participation violated U.S. law, as Yugoslavia was then on the sanctions list. When shown the document that spelled this out, Fischer spat on it. A warrant for his arrest was issued, and he became a fugitive. For the next eight years, he cooled his heels in Budapest. By the end of his time in Hungary, he was so consumed by hatred for the United States that he remarked, the morning after 9/11, “I applaud the act. Look, nobody gets. . . that the U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians . . . for years.”

There is no indication that Fischer spent his time in Budapest doing anything other than playing chess. But given that the Soviet/Russian intelligence services love to turn prominent Americans, the fact that the best-ever U.S. chess champion was living in exile in Budapest, and clearly pissed off at his government besides, would not have escaped the notice of the. . .

FSB

. . . the Russian intelligence service whose European headquarters is located in—where else?—Budapest. In 1999, the onetime head of the FSB, Vladimir Putin, no stranger to the charms of the Danube, was plucked from obscurity and installed as president of the Russian Federation with the help of . . .

Semion Mogilevich

The Most Dangerous Mobster in the World, as the FBI once called him, was born in the Soviet Union—in Ukraine—in 1946, and subsequently emigrated to Israel, which granted him citizenship. In 1991, he married Katalin Papp, a Hungarian national, and through that marriage was able to acquire a Hungarian passport—making it even easier for him to travel. Budapest became his base of operations for the ensuing decade, during which Mogilevich became the “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia. (I wrote about “The Brainy Don” in detail last week.)

Viktor Orbán

Soon after assuming control of Fidesz, Hungary’s national conservative party, an on-the-make Orbán arrived at the Budapest house of Dietmar Clodo, one of Mogilevich’s associates, and picked up a suitcase full of Deutchmarks. Clodo claims to have videotaped the drop, and the young politician knew damned well who was paying him off. If true—and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise—Orbán has been owned by the Russian mob since 1994.

Four years after the suitcase incident—or, to be more accurate, the suitcase incident we know about; there’s no reason to believe this only happened once—Orbán became Prime Minister of Hungary. He held the job until 2002, returned in 2010, and has been in power ever since. In his second stint in office especially, he has assumed autocratic powers. As Patrick Kinsley explained in the New York Times in 2018:

Through legislative fiat and force of will, Mr. Orbán has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture. He has done this even as Hungary remains a member of the European Union and receives billions of dollars in funding from the bloc. European Union officials did little as Mr. Orbán transformed Hungary into what he calls an “illiberal democracy.”

Orbán is Putin’s biggest champion in the E.U. This has real-world consequences. Russian spooks and crooks flock to Budapest to obtain Hungarian passports, as Mogilevich did years ago. As Göllner explains, in his “Budapest Bridge” series:

These passports can be had for a hefty fee—300,000 Euros a pop—and after waiting only 30 days, which allows no time for a thorough vetting of the applicant. If passports were to be given to foreign aliens under such circumstances in the U.S., Homeland Security would be purged from top to bottom. In Canada, the minister would have to resign. In Hungary, this “passport business” has been subcontracted out to some of the most corrupt people in Viktor Orbán’s immediate entourage.

Too, Budapest has become a Mecca for would-be despots and Make [Insert Country Here] Great Again nationalists. “It is no coincidence,” Göllner writes, “that Europe’s most notorious right-wing populists, anti-Semites and anti-Muslim radicals, such as Holland’s Gert Wilders and Britain’s Nick Griffin, have established residences in Hungary. It is no coincidence that Putin is a frequent secret visitor.”

In the last few years, Orbán’s star has risen even more among U.S. conservatives, after he became the first foreign leader to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. This phenomenon is likely due to the work of the “Merchant of Venom,” the late Republican political consultant . . .

Arthur Finkelstein

. . . who Göllner says maintained a residence in Budapest and was for years a lobbyist for Orbán, among many other unsavory characters: Richard Nixon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo, all of whom left office facing serious criminal charges; odious U.S. Senators Strom Thurmond, Jessie Helms, and Bob Dole; and, more recently, the Trump Organization. As Göllner explained in 2017:

Finkelstein is perhaps the most bitter opponent of Hillary Clinton amongst a small circle of pro-Republican campaign gurus, and a frequent flyer to many of the capitals where Putin is seen as a hero. Finkelstein introduced Paul Manafort years ago to Putin’s pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, who use their corporate hats, to advance Putin’s fortunes abroad. Finkelstein also had a big hand in Manafort’s addition to the Trump team. Finkelstein has also served as chief political strategist for the past 10 years, to Putin’s most loyal follower in the Western alliance—the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán. Finkie, as Orbán is fond to call him, also works for some of the most notorious autocrats of the former Soviet Republics, and always indirectly, so his pay-masters can’t be easily identified—a skill that he passed on to Trump’s ex-campaign chairman, Manafort.

Göllner maintains that Finkelstein served as a sort of shadow advisor to the Trump campaign, operating in off-the-beaten-path Budapest, to avoid detection. If true, the 2016 election was the last feather in Finkelstein’s well-plumed cap; he died in August of 2017.

Although Finkelstein remains an obscure figure outside of political circles, and a complex one—a gay Jewish man who zealously promoted anti-Semites and homophobes—his fingerprints are all over half a century of Republican politics. He’s the evil genius who made “liberal” into a bad word. He either worked with or mentored pretty much every GOP consultant or operative worth his salt, including Roger Ailes, Tony Fabrizio, Alex Castellanos, Ari Fleischer, Frank Luntz, Charles Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. His younger protégés were known as “Arthur’s Boys.”

Among “Arthur’s Boys” with ties to Budapest is . . .

Richard Grenell

According to the Hungarian investigative journalism outlet Atlatszo, Grenell, who was Trump’s Ambassador to Germany before his appointment as Director of National Intelligence, “knowingly provided public relations services directed at U.S. media on behalf of the Magyar Foundation of North America,” which is funded by Orbán’s pro-Putin government. Göllner writes:

Grenell didn’t register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which is a requirement applying to individuals and entities operating inside the U.S. as an “agent” of a “foreign principal.”

Responsible Statecraft cited documents (12) acquired by Atlatszo’s freedom of information request to Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which revealed that MFNA hired Grenell’s firm, Capitol Media Partners, which, according to the 2017 financial disclosures of the MFNA, received $103,750 for PR services.

As Göllner points out in a more recent piece, “The woman who signed Grenell’s pay-cheques in America on behalf of the Hungarian Government, Jo Anne Barnhart, was another Finkelstein [a]ssociate. She was the Operations Manager of the campaign team that brought the corrupt Ilham Aliyev to power in Azerbaijan. Barnhart’s boss, Arthur J. Finkelstein, and his sidekick, George E. Birnbaum (former cabinet secretary to Bibi Netanyahu) were the kingmakers in Hungary.”

If true, this means that the Trump appointee who oversaw the CIA and the NSA for three months in 2020—during which time he tweeted at me!—

—got his start lobbying for mob-funded would-be dictator Viktor Orbán.

Other Trump associates with ties to Budapest include . . .

J.D. Gordon

. . . the Director of National Security for the 2016 Trump campaign. Gordon was the individual who changed the language in the Republican Party platform to be softer on Russia with respect to Ukraine. According to Göllner, Gordon, an Orbán fanboy, flew to Budapest not once, not twice, not thrice, but six times during the 2016 campaign. Now why would he do that? If true, this seems more relevant than the alleged trip to Prague that Michael Cohen has repudiated multiple times under oath.

As a foreign advisor to the Trump campaign, Gordon worked with both “useful idiot” George Papadopoulos and . . .

Carter Page

. . . the eccentric Russophile whose name is all over the Mueller Report, the FBI’s investigation, and the intelligence reports compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele (which Page derides as “the dodgy dossier.”) Page flew to Budapest in September 2016 and, in his capacity as Trump advisor, met with two high-placed Hungarian officials: Jeno Megyesy, one of Orbán’s closest advisors, and Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, whom Page had first met at the Republican National Convention that June.

When questioned about these meetings by Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee, Page was, well, dodgy. He claimed to not remember who he’d met with. “The detailed specifics of that,” he testified, “are a distant memory.” And when asked if any Russians were involved in these meetings—a reasonable line of inquiry, given Orbán’s cozy relationship with both Putin and Mogilevich—Page said: “There may have been one Russian person passing through there, but I have no recollection because it was totally immaterial and nothing serious was discussed.” Whether he met with Russians or not, there is no reality in which the FSB was unaware of what Page was up to, just down the street from its European headquarters.

The most colorful Trumper in Budapest, however, is undoubtedly . . .

Sebastian Gorka

. . . and his great big head. In 2017, Gorka served for seven glorious months as Deputy Assistant to President Trump. After failing to obtain a security clearance—something that had also happened to him in Hungary—Gorka left the West Wing soon after his boss Steve Bannon was shown the door. He became a Fox News contributor for two years, and now hawks fish oil supplements.

Born in Britain to Hungarian refugee parents, Gorka relocated to Hungary with his mother and father in 1992. He worked for the Hungarian Ministry of Defence, and in 1998, was a formal advisor to Viktor Orbán. He received a Masters and then a Doctorate from Corvinus University. His thesis advisor was András Lánczi, father of his friend Tamás Lánczi, the CEO of Danube Business Consulting Ltd., “the London based joint company, set up by Finkelstein and [Arpad] Habony at the start of the Trump campaign [that] played an important role in the transfer of the hacked documents [from Russia] to Assange and Wikileaks,” according to Göllner.

Oh, and Gorka appears to have been a member of the Order of Vitéz, a Hungarian organization established during the Second World War with the mission of keeping Jews out of the country. He has denied this, and certainly it’s a more complicated story than it appears at first blush. On the other hand, plenty of Hungarians thought he was Vitéz, long before Donald Trump came along. The fact that Gorka wrote for Demokrata, a Hungarian anti-Semitic journal, does not exactly bolster his case.

According to Hungarian Spectrum, Gorka had something of a falling out with Orbán, and it’s therefore not entirely accurate to think of him as simply a puppet of the Hungarian despot. In Budapest, he was widely (and rightly) considered a joke. On the other hand, in his brief tenure working for Trump, he seemed to be instrumental in easing relations between Washington and Budapest—by February 2017, Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, had already met with Trump three times, as well as a host of other top Cabinet officials.

As for Szemerkényi’s counterpart . . .

David Cornstein

. . . Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, an octogenarian jewelry magnate and crony of the Former Guy, his philosophy of diplomacy seems to have involved little more than rank sycophancy. His puckered lips were planted on Orbán’s keister for most of his posting in Budapest. At an event for Orbán, Cornstein called him “the perfect partner” and “a very, very strong and good leader,” and then had Paul Anka serenade him with a rendition of “My Way.” This is shall-we-say unbecoming for a diplomatic representative of the United States.

Rivaling Gorka and Cornstein for top Budapest buffoon is . . .

Connie Mack IV

. . . great-grandson of Cornelius “Connie Mack” McGillicuddy, Hall of Fame manager for baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics. During his days as a Congressman from Florida, the fourth Mack was—you’re not gonna believe this!—anti-FISA reform and ardently pro-WikiLeaks. He is now a lobbyist for Viktor Orbán, a gig that has earned him more than $2.5 million. When we consider that cash money flowed directly from Mogilevich to Orbán, we would be remiss to not point out the shady origin of Mack’s lucrative consulting fees. But then, what more can we expect from a former Hooters marketing consultant who got bombed on shots of Jägermeister and lost a bar brawl to a professional baseball player? Given his storied MLB pedigree, however, it’s sad that Mack can’t even root-root-root for the home team.

Tucker Carlson

The Fox News personality was in Budapest earlier this year, singing the praises of Orbán while hosting his show there for a full week. Carlson sees the Hungarian “illiberal democracy” model as the future of the United States, which, needless to say, is both un-American and anti-democratic. He has become a full-bore propagandist, carrying water for some of the vilest human beings on the planet.

Again, we know that money flowed from Mogilevich to Orbán, which puts Tucker in an unenviable position in this bad-guy Human Centipede:

CPAC

Of course CPAC is holding its conference in Budapest next year. It’s as close as they could get to meeting in Moscow. They should spare us all the effort and convene at FSB headquarters.

Last but not least, a list of Hungarian movers and shakers would not be complete without . . .

George Soros

. . . the Hungarian-born America investor and philanthropist, who has donated $32 billion of his own fortune to his Open Society Foundations charitable enterprise. He founded the Central European University, with campuses in Vienna and his native Budapest, in 1991, with an endowment of $880 million. More recently, this led to a political fight with Orbán, who tried to have the university shut down in 2018. Shuttering institutions of higher learning, of course, is right out of the strongman playbook.


Göllner was right, it seems. There’s much more going on in Budapest than there should be—and way too many American spices in the gulash.

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Photo credit: Jorge Franganillo. Budapest skyline, 2006.