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By Casey Michel, Director Combatting Kleptocracy Program

Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made waves by flying to the United States to meet with Donald Trump—but not with sitting president Joe Biden. It was, at a minimum, a severe breach of diplomatic protocol, and one that threatens to unravel Budapest’s strained relations with Washington even further. Even Biden himself commented on the meeting, saying that Orbán—an authoritarian who has effectively unwound Hungarian democracy—was “looking for dictatorship.”

But there was one other meeting that Orbán took while in the U.S. that hasn’t received enough attention—and points directly to how Orbán has cultivated American conservatives to his cause and created a beachhead for Hungarian influence in Washington. On Friday, he spoke at a closed-door meeting at the Heritage Foundation’s headquarters in the nation’s capital. Joined by Heritage president Kevin Roberts and failed presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Orbán spoke, according to a readout, in front of an audience that “included renowned U.S. right-wing politicians, analysts and public personalities.” (This article has been updated with responses from a Heritage Foundation spokesperson.)

The event was, on paper, a somewhat dull affair, with Orbán covering matters ranging from Hungary’s “conservative family and economic policies” to the state of the war in Ukraine. Pulling back, however, the talk was nothing short of shocking. Instead of meeting with the White House, Orbán traveled to Washington to sit with the leadership of a think tank, using them as a platform to access and influence conservative Americans about both foreign and domestic policy.

All of which leads to one question: How, and why, did the Heritage Foundation become the go-to vehicle for Budapest’s budding autocracy to target Americans?

The answer follows several different tracks. On the one hand, Hungary has been shedding lobbying outfits for the past few years, dropping a range of P.R. shops and Twitter influencers to focus solely on Heritage. On the other hand, internal transformations at Heritage—and a willingness to shred its reputation as a bastion of Reaganite, and even democratic, credentials—led the think tank’s leadership directly into Orbán’s lap, allowing it to become little more than a mouthpiece for a strongman and a leading proponent for Orbán-style rule in the U.S.