Hungarian lobbying in Washington DC revealed by new documents

Zalán Zubor (atlatszo.hu) 2023-11-23
Zalán Zubor (atlatszo.hu) 2023-11-23

In October, a US lobbyist hired by the Hungarian government, David Reaboi, published a detailed account of his activities. Reaboi, who had previously campaigned for Donald Trump, tried to get Hungarian politicians invited to US talk shows, but rarely succeeded, and he was also paid to defend the Orbán government on Twitter (now X). According to media reports, the Biden administration is increasingly disturbed by the Orbán government’s lobbying in Washington DC, which it sees as interference in US domestic politics.

This article was originally published on  atlatszo.hu

“Evil George Soros demands Biden and the EU destroy Hungary and Poland. We must stand against this” – among others, this Twitter (now X) post was paid by the Embassy of Hungary in Washington, according to documents filed by the Hungarian government’s DC lobbyist David Reaboi with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Reaboi was paid a total of $35,000 (12.4 million forints) between 2020 and 2021 for various services, including defending the Hungarian government on social media.

Reaboi declared himself as a lobbyist (registered foreign agent) for the Hungarian government already in 2020, but recently, he has unexpectedly filed new, more detailed documents, published online in the DOJ’s FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act)  database. According to US sources, the move may be connected to the Biden administration’s recent crackdown on foreign lobbyists, including those acting on behalf of Hungary, who are seen to influence US domestic politics by building networks with right-wing politicians and pundits.

In interviews, Reaboi spoke about his Hungarian Jewish roots, and having lived in Hungary for some time after 1989. Since the 2000s, he worked for several US right-wing think tanks, including the Center for Security Policy. He also worked with Andrew Breitbart, founder of the far-right Breitbart News website. After Breibart’s death, Steve Bannon became the media company’s CEO. He went on to lead Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 and served as senior counselor and chief White House strategist in 2017.

David Reaboi at the Saudi Media Forum in February 2023. Source: twitter.com/davereaboi

Reaboi also claims to have worked for Trump and advised on national security  in 2017 (it is likely that it was Bannon who brought him to the White House). Since then, Reaboi has distanced himself from Trump and, in the current primary campaign, started backing the former president’s rival, Ron DeSantis. Recently, Reaboi called Trump “the assassin of the American right”.

Apart from his work for the Hungarian government, Reaboi is known for his statements and articles defending the Saudi Arabian regime and attacking Qatar, going as far as to relativize the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During its four years of operation, Reaboi’s think tank, the Security Studies Group, has received more than a million dollars in revenue from unknown sources, which Reaboi’s critics suspect came from Saudi Arabia. Reaboi has denied undeclared lobbying for the Saudis.

“I’m not here for the money”

Reaboi disclosed his lobbying activities on behalf of the Hungarian government under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which requires individuals and companies to disclose payments received from foreign governments or other foreign clients for their US activities. In October, Intelligence Online noticed that Reaboi had significantly expanded his earlier statement, revealing more details about the cooperation between him and the Hungarian foreign ministry (officially, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington DC).

In his 2020 entry, Reaboi listed his task as “to generate positive US media coverage of Hungary”, including by briefing journalists and participating in social media debates. It was only after three years that he made public the results of his activities, including the 60 Twitter posts, copies of which are now also in the US DOJ database.

Among the tweets paid for by the Hungarian foreign ministry is a post promoting an interview he gave to neokohn.hu, a news site affiliated with the orthodox hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch-linked Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH). During his lobbying activities, Reaboi has repeatedly published statements in which he tried to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism against the Hungarian government for its campaign against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. When the topic came up in the neokohn.hu interview, Reaboi said:

“I think it is a basic human right to be able to criticize Soros’s – or anyone else’s – ‘philanthropy’. The left calls Soros’ criticism anti-Semitism because they want one of their major donors to be left alone – and to ban criticizing him in a sense.” ”

Elsewhere, he posted about party politics in Hungary:

“SHAMEFUL: Media attacks the anti-Semitic Jobbik party when it wants to make Hungary look bad—but when Jobbik joins forces with the Left to attack Orban and his center-right Fidesz, suddenly the insults stop.”

In several tweets, Reaboi responded to his own critics as well. In one post – which, ironically, he later shared in the FARA database as a paid tweet – he writes that he supports Orbán’s party not for money, but out of conviction.

“As anyone who’s followed me for some time knows, as a conservative American of Hungarian Jewish descent, I have been supportive of Hungary—especially at a time when they’re under assault from the media and hard-left NGOs. I’m not in this for the money.”

In another sponsored tweet, he promoted the Scruton Café in Budapest, which was founded by Zoltán Szalai, director of the pro-Orbán, government-backed Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC). The Scruton Café chain was also funded with Hungarian public money. In September 2023, the café chain even won a €132 thousand (HUF 50) million grant from the state-run Lajos Batthyány Foundation for its future expansion in Poland.

Stricter enforcement of FARA

Reaboi’s FARA documents also reveal which US media and journalists he contacted to generate better press coverage for the Hungarian government. According to the document he disclosed, he sent out seven emails during the term of the contract to this end. Archives of the contacted media outlets show that his efforts had little effect.

One of the lobbyist’s recipients, for example, was Tom Rogan, a journalist for the conservative Washington Examiner, who continued to write critically of the Orbán government even after the request, writing in January this year that Hungary’s NATO membership should be suspended because of the government’s friendship with Russia and the fact that Russian spies were allowed to operate freely in Hungary.

The requests also clearly reflect the aim of generating a positive picture of the Orbán government in the American Jewish press (Algemeiner and Tablet Magazine are among the recipients), presumably linked once again to accusations of anti-Semitism in the wake of the Hungarian government’s anti-Soros campaign.

A late update of a FARA declaration (such as in the case of David Reaboi) occurs when the Justice Department finds that the original FARA declaration is inadequate, at which point the Department can launch a so-called compliance investigation. These cases sometimes take months, sometimes a year, so it is difficult to know when the investigation began.

According to US sources, the Department of Justice has recently taken a stricter approach to FARA enforcement: since 2016, the Department has attempted to register unregistered lobbyists and require greater transparency for registered actors. This is related to the fact that several associates of Donald Trump have been on the payroll of foreign authoritarian regimes. Examples include George Nader and Paul Manafort, both in contact with Saudi interests, and Elliott Broidy, a Trump fundraiser, who pleaded guilty in 2020 for undeclared lobbying for Malaysia and China.

We reached out to Reaboi via his Twitter account to ask him if he currently has any contracts or working relationships with the Hungarian foreign ministry or other organizations in Hungary. We also asked him why he had supplemented his FARA declaration now, after all this time. The lobbyist did not respond to our questions by the time of publication.

Pegasus spyware developer’s lobbyist also paid by Hungary

Reaboi is not the only US lobbyist who has been on Hungarian government payroll in recent years. In 2019, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington DC signed a $160,000 (HUF 56 million) contract with a PR firm called Policy Impact Strategic Communications to organize positive media coverage for the Orbán government.

The results of this contract allegedly included facilitating coverage of Hungary on Tucker Carlson’s TV show. After 2019, Carlson did a series of reports praising the Orbán government. On one occasion, in 2021, his whole show was shot in Hungary. During that visit, he interviewed Viktor Orbán and was flown around on a helicopter of the Hungarian Armed Forces. However, these activities were proven to be damaging for Carlson’s career: according to a Huffington Post report, his trip to Hungary was not authorized by the Fox TV network and contributed to the eventual cancellation of his show.

Tucker Carlson and PM Viktor Orbán in Budapest in 2021. Source: Facebook/Viktor Orbán

Although the Hungarian government has mainly been in contact with lobbyists linked to the American right and far-right, in 2021, it also contracted a firm closer to the US Democratic Party. In January last year, Direkt36 reported that the Hungarian foreign ministry had contracted a firm of George Tucker to provide “strategic legal advice” in the US for $250,000 (HUF 80 million) per month.

George Tucker is a British ex-diplomat who, according to Axios, is a supporter of the US Democratic Party, just like his partner Duncan McFetridge who also worked for the Hungarian client, and who previously provided services to Democratic politicians in California.

George Tucker, on the other hand, also advised and lobbied on behalf of the Israeli NSO Group, which developed the Pegasus spyware, and its parent company Q Cyber Technologies. This was the spyware technology that was purchased by the Hungarian government, among others, and was used to eavesdrop on journalists, including some working with Atlatszo.hu at the time.

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Zalán Zubor

Zalán Zubor began working at Atlatszo.hu in 2022. Zubor covers topics related to Russian influence in Hungary and corresponding security risks, as well as the Hungarian government’s stance on the war in Ukraine and refugees in Hungary.