Like Donald Trump, David Cornstein is a very rich New Yorker. Like Trump, he likes to put on a good show. The two men have been friends for decades and thanks to President Trump, Cornstein is now the US ambassador to Hungary.
It should come as little surprise then that Cornstein has modeled his diplomacy style on his boss’s, touting his business acumen and the importance of personal relationships while downplaying the role of traditional protocol and institutions.
With a Trump-like figure in Budapest, America’s posture toward Hungary has changed dramatically – both visually and politically. Critics have winced as he has gone over the heads of career diplomats and actively courted Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban.
At a traditional Budapest restaurant last week, a CNN team bumped into the ambassador as he enjoyed a bowl of soup and a glass of sparkling wine with two of his assistants. The US Embassy had told CNN that the ambassador was not available for an interview, but when Cornstein had finished his soup, he came over to sit and talk with us.
Friendly and congenial, the 81-year-old jewelry magnate has no political or diplomatic experience and he has moved in the same circles as President Trump for decades. He registered his golf handicap through the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, and told CNN he plans to spend time with the President there over the holidays.
“My view of this country, first of all I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in Europe. It’s a beautiful city,” Cornstein gushed about Budapest, “It’s really a great place and my biggest complaint, and I tell Orban, I tell everybody in the country: you got to get your good news out. You are always on the defensive.”
Cornstein seemed bemused by the media interest in him, even after his recent dinner with Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer who is a central figure in the impeachment proceedings and who was on a controversial trip to Eastern Europe at the time. To Cornstein, Giuliani is another of his close personal friends from New York. He said he didn’t even ask him why he was in town.
One of Cornstein’s first decisions upon arriving in Hungary in the summer of 2018, was that the embassy’s Fourth of July party needed to be changed.
“It must’ve been 90 degrees, the sun beating down, everybody dressed in a suit and tie, everybody perspiring on each other, listening to speeches. I said I really don’t think this is a party and I want to do something different.”
The following year, the picnic was banished and a lavish indoor gala held in its place. Legendary 60s singer Paul Anka was flown in from the US to serenade the guest of honor, Prime Minister Orban. Nearly a thousand guests looked on, some bemused, as Cornstein spoke warmly of the deepening relationship between the two countries, before hugging Orban.
“Something like this can only happen if you have a very, very strong and good leader. And we have a saying in the United States that when you have a dance, you need two to tango, and I think we have found the perfect partner to have this dance with here,” he said that night.
Four years ago, such a fawning display would have been unthinkable. The relationship between Hungary and the US had become frosty under the Obama administration, as Orban implemented draconian anti-immigration policies and set about systematically silencing voices of opposition in his country.
Far from condemning Orban and his authoritarian leanings, Cornstein has appeared to court him. He was instrumental in arranging a White House visit for the Hungarian leader, complete with a coveted photo op in the Oval Office, despite protests from both US political parties.
Trump offered the Prime Minister a warm welcome in May this year.
“It’s a great honor to have with us here today, the Prime Minister of Hungary. Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected, respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK,” Trump said.
Political appointees are nothing new for Presidents of either party. They are often politically inexperienced. President George H.W. Bush made his cousin ambassador to Hungary. Years later, President Barack Obama appointed a producer on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” to the post.
Usually, though, ambassadors work closely with career foreign service staff to push the agreed foreign policy of the United States and advance American values. With Cornstein at the embassy, that hasn’t always been the case.
Under Cornstein’s tenure, a US-accredited graduate school in Budapest was forced out of Hungary. Central European University was founded and funded by George Soros, whom the Hungarian government has demonized as a symbol of dangerous liberalism and who has also been a target of scorn by US Republicans.
But CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff said that when Cornstein first arrived, there were high hopes that he would help intervene on CEU’s behalf and push Orban to let the university continue issuing American degrees. Publicly, Cornstein vowed to do just that. But privately, Ignatieff said, there was a sense that the ambassador was “unwilling or unable” to push Orban.
“This is an American institution, you would assume an American ambassador on post in a country would say, I gotta defend American institutions here… But somehow I think Mr. Cornstein began to think, ‘Huh, this is a liberal institution, I’m closer to a conservative like Orban than I am to the ideals of this institution,’” Ignatieff said. “And what’s disturbing about that, is that shouldn’t be the issue.”
Cornstein also has been criticized for not being a more forceful advocate for the rule of law.
Miklos Ligeti, legal director of Transparency International Hungary, a government watchdog group, was invited to speak at a meeting with Ambassador Cornstein and a visiting congressional delegation last year. He told CNN he was shocked when the ambassador “hijacked” the meeting and appeared to minimize the problem of Hungarian corruption.
“Mr. Cornstein mentioned that he witnessed corruption and experienced corruption in Hungary but corruption was everywhere in the world and he didn’t see any difference between corruption in New York, in Chicago and in Budapest and any other part of the world, which is a disturbing and a concerning assertion,” Legeti told CNN.
A State Department spokesperson said the US addresses issues of corruption privately when they arise through appropriate channels.
“The United States government has been very clear in expressing its concerns, when we have them, to the government of Hungary via diplomatic channels,” the spokesperson said. “Ambassador Cornstein, like all ambassadors, is the President’s representative in the country to which he is accredited.”
Cornstein is unfazed by the criticism that has come his way.
“I report to one person, the President of the United States, and if I have something to say, I’ll say it … Otherwise, supposedly, I am supposed to be running the show here and that’s what I’m doing. Nobody has said to me, ‘I don’t like the result of what you’re doing.’”
Privately, though, that’s exactly what many people are saying. Critics fear that Cornstein’s actions are undermining American interests and that Trump’s disregard for diplomatic norms could deal an enduring blow, one that will last much longer than Cornstein’s tenure and have repercussions far beyond Hungary.