Why Did Hungary’s Strongman Hire An American Strong Man?

David Reaboi, a onetime lobbyist for Hungary, gives a television interview in December 2020. (Screenshot/Newsmax)

A south Florida bodybuilder with a “pugilistic” Twitter presence secured a contract last year to spearhead a campaign by Hungary as the central European nation sought to ingratiate itself with the MAGA right.

Meet David Reaboi, a Hungarian-speaking, self-described aficionado of both jazz and  “political warfare,” who spent three months hawking the nation to which Tucker Carlson and a host of notable conservatives have paid homage over the past year.

His work ended up producing coverage of a Hungarian politician boosting the Ukraine conspiracy theories that got Trump impeached, a paean to a Hungarian constitutional change that defined parents as “male” and “female,” and an interview with the Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. decrying anti-Semitism. (The interviewer says he had no contact with Reaboi in setting up the interview.)

Reaboi spoke to TPM last week about his work for Hungary’s Embassy to the U.S., which signed him on a $35,000 contract to undertake a fairly typical mission: generating positive coverage about the central European nation while combating negative narratives about it.

Newsletters
Get TPM in your inbox, twice weekly.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

“I told them, look: You need to build up your fan base, so to speak, in the United States,” Reaboi recalls of his advice to Budapest. “Because people would like your message if they heard it, and Hungary always needs new friends, and more friends, and better ones. So they agreed to that.”

To Reaboi, that message and background is close to home. He grew up in northern New Jersey, what he described in one interview with the Claremont Institute as “Soprano-land.” He is the son of Hungarian Jews, with parents born in a part of Europe that now lies within Romanian borders.

“I’m sure that had a lot to do with why they hired me,” Reaboi reflects, noting that he interned at the Hungarian Embassy in D.C. while in college, before making the inevitable plug: “The Hungarians are also very concerned about Jewish issues in particular and Israel, and they’re very sensitive to the criticism of anti-Semitism, which, to their mind, is absolutely bonkers.”

Reaboi ended up during the Obama years as Vice President for Strategic Communications for the Center for Security Policy, the far-right Frank Gaffney outfit known for stirring up Islamophobia by spreading a series of unhinged conspiracy theories about Muslims. Gaffney himself was banned from CPAC in 2010 for spreading a rumor that Grover Norquist was infiltrating the group on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Reaboi, comfortable in the rough-and-tumble world of partisan warfare, once accused the now-defunct ThinkProgress of forming part of a “Shariah Defense Lobby” after the outlet published an article identifying the Center for Security Policy as Islamophobic.

Until Trump took office, Reaboi lived in Texas. He then returned to D.C, and eventually, in 2019, relocated to Miami Beach. He continues to maintain an aggressive online presence, dunking on “leftists” while posting reflections on the gym and music.

When Sebastian Gorka came under attack in 2017 for his ties to the Vitezi Rend, a group in which World War II-era Hungarian officials who collaborated with the Nazis and the Holocaust were involved, Reaboi came to the Trump official’s defense, taking to PJ Media to describe the narrative as “a complete perversion of [Gorka]’s involvement in Hungarian politics.”

“The politics and the histories of central Europe are complicated. Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language that very few speak,” Reaboi told The Atlantic in May 2017 about the issue. “That — plus a venomous atmosphere of hyper-partisanship — creates the perfect storm for character assassination.”

But Reaboi, who told TPM he did not renew the contract with Hungary at the end of 2020, now feels that his representation of the country may have created a problem. (It’s not clear who dropped who in this situation, or whether anyone was dropped — Reaboi described the end of the contract as a mutual agreement.)

Reaboi told TPM that he fears, in spite of his FARA registration, that the Biden Justice Department might prosecute him over his work for Orbán, comparing what may lie ahead to the fates of Paul Manafort and Tom Barrack.

“I looked over, I saw Manafort, other folks — the guy being nailed for UAE — I met him in passing,” Reaboi said. “I see people like that with not unlimited ability to defend themselves, but more than I have — and I didn’t want to chance it.”

Since departing the Center for Security Policy in 2013, Reaboi has taken a hard line against Qatar. The Daily Beast once described him as a “pro-Saudi lobbyist” and, in 2017, he helped found a think tank with another former Gaffney employee called the Security Studies Group.

With Reaboi at the helm, 990 filings show, the group devoted significant effort to combating Qatari influence, including a report titled “Blood Money” which documented how the Gulf state “bought off the entire D.C. establishment.”

Reaboi had all that under his belt in February 2020, when the Hungarian Embassy put out a call for proposals for a job to do “political media” work, a contract filed with FARA says. With his ties to the Embassy community, Reaboi applied, and got the job, with work commencing in September 2020.

As part of the work he did for Hungary, Reaboi said that he had sent memoranda to Budapest suggesting that American conservative figures conduct interviews with Hungarian government officials.

“The Hungarian government is notorious in terms of not dealing with foreign press,” Reaboi says. “The Tucker interview was something that I tried to get — Tucker was 100 percent — he and his producers were 100 percent on board. It took six months to sell it to Budapest to say that okay, it’s okay to speak to a foreign journalist.”

But Reaboi said he would not share the materials or names related to his pitching due to privilege concerns.

TPM asked what privilege that was.

“Mine,” Reaboi replied.

An investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Hungarian service found, via an information request to Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that Reaboi’s contract also produced 15 articles over a three-month period last year, matching the terms of the contract uploaded to the FARA database.

Part of his body of work involved a bizarre situation in which, weeks before the 2020 election, Hungary’s foreign minister began to boost the same Ukraine-related conspiracy theories that resulted in Trump’s first impeachment.

Biden in October 2020 had described Hungary as part of the “rise of totalitarian regimes in the world.”

But the response, from the country’s foreign minister, was focused on long-debunked allegations about Hunter Biden that Trump and those around him had spent years trying to push into the mainstream.

Articles in the conservative media, including in Breitbart and American Greatness, soon appeared, boosting the country’s response.

“Biden spent more of his time outside D.C. in Ukraine than in rural America,” Breitbart quoted Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto as saying. “It would be great if Joe Biden could tell us why he put pressure on the Ukrainian government to fire its chief prosecutor, and how all of this related to the investigation into his son’s Ukrainian energy deals grinding to a halt.”

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the articles emerged as part of Reaboi’s contract, an assertion that the lobbyist confirmed to TPM, explaining that he helped pitch the pieces to the right-wing outlets.

Reaboi described the “message” he tried to communicate as that of Hungary being a key force opposing a push for global government.

“It is a message kind of the importance of the nation-state,” he said, describing Orbán’s Hungary as “a bulwark against transnational globalist governance, in terms of the EU in the case of Hungary.”

(L-R)US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of of Hungary Viktor Orbán (DANNY GYS/AFP/Getty Images)

It is language familiar to those who have followed attempts to add an intellectual veneer to Trumpism, positioning it as a revolt of blood and soil patriots against an uncaring, cosmopolitan elite. Orbán, Reaboi told TPM, “is standing up, imperfectly, to what many consider to be — what I consider to be — an insane, tyrannical EU that frankly is not in anybody’s interest.”

He added that for Carlson, the affinity with Orbán lies more in “the religious-cultural aspect of things.”

One article that Reaboi reportedly placed in American Greatness described how Hungary, under Orbán’s leadership, amended its Constitution “to protect traditional Christian values,” giving Hungarian mothers the constitutional definition of “female” and, for fathers, “male.”

“There’s not a lot of convincing that’s necessary,” Reaboi said of his efforts to get conservative outlets to cover the central European nation. “So it’s just a matter of people being aware.”

The change to the Hungarian Constitution may seem like the kind of culture-war stunt currently practiced by state legislatures around the country.

To Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard who studies European politics, it largely is.

“They see him as a culture warrior defending traditional values and that’s attractive to certain people,” she said of Orbán.

Berman added that for Orbán, the PR benefit to becoming the supposed head of a transnational right-wing movement is clear: “He’s the dictator of a teeny little country in central Europe; now all of a sudden he’s this figure of international stature.”

“In another time, he would just be the leader of a country that nobody cares about,” she added. “Now, important media figures from the big U.S. are coming to find out how he does what he does.”

This story has been updated.

Latest Muckraker
Comments
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Reporters:
Newswriters:
Director of Audience:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Publisher:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: