• The Star Staff

Poland’s right-wing president meets with Trump and gets a pre-election boost

By Michael Crowley

President Donald Trump welcomed President Andrzej Duda of Poland to the White House on Wednesday, his first meeting with a foreign leader since February and one that Democrats called an unseemly effort to boost a European ally whose country is tilting toward autocracy days before a close reelection vote.

Duda, who has served as Poland’s president since 2015, has presided over political restrictions on Poland’s judiciary, media and civil society while becoming one of Trump’s preferred foreign partners. The Polish election is Sunday, a fact Trump made no effort to gloss over.

“I do believe he has an election coming up, and I do believe he will be successful,” Trump said of Duda during a news conference the men held in the Rose Garden.

Pressed on whether he was seeking to tip the scales in the Polish election, Trump deflected the question.

“He’s doing a terrific job.The people of Poland think the world of him,” Trump said. “I don’t think he needs my help.” But it is clear that Trump would be happy to see Duda retain power. The two leaders have met one-on-one at least five times, including three times at the White House. Two years ago Duda hosted the president in Warsaw, whereTrump delivered a speech calling for nationalist, anti-immigration policies worldwide. Duda has even offered to host a “Fort Trump” that would house U.S. troops in his country.

His visit had no clear official purpose, analysts said, and amounted to a photo opportunity for a populist leader whom polls show with just 40% support heading into an election that requires a majority to avoid a runoff.

“This was really an endorsement masquerading as a meeting,” said Molly Montgomery, a former career diplo- mat and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Montgomery noted that Trump “didn’t even try to hide or gloss over the election piece here.”

Trump has not met in Washington with a top foreign official since February, when he hosted Venezuela’s opposi- tion leader, Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. recognizes as the country’s rightful president.

He tried without success to coax several heads of state to a Group of 7 summit in the Washington area this month, an event he said would signal a “return to normalcy.” But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany quashed the idea in a statement saying the coronavirus made such a gather- ing unsafe.

For Duda, the political benefits clearly outweighed any risk of travel, even if his visit violated a longstanding American political norm.

“There is a good rule in U.S. diplomacy where you don’t do that,” said Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Poland in the Clin- ton administration. “Trump doesn’t much care about those things, but the reason you don’t do it is because it injects the U.S. into the domestic politics of another country, and it alienates a whole bunch of people there’s no reason to alienate.”

The leaders said they discussed a range of issues, in- cluding efforts against the coronavirus, Poland’s purchase of liquid natural gas from the United States and U.S. assistance for Poland’s civil nuclear program.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Poland than right now,” Trump said in brief remarks to reporters in the Oval Office. “I have a very good personal relationship with the president.”

The men also discussed U.S. troop levels in Poland, which could rise if Trump follows through on his stated plans to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany, cap- ping America’s permanent presence there at 25,000 troops. Many officials in Poland are hopeful that Trump will relocate some of those troops to their country, which now hosts some 4,500 U.S. service members on a rotating basis. But Trump officials say no such plans have been set.

Writing inThe Wall Street Journal last week,Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said military officials were still drawing up options for the president.

“We’re going to be reducing our forces in Germany,” Trump said. “Some will be coming home and some will be going to other places — but Poland would be one of those other places, other places in Europe.”

If more U.S. troops do go to Poland, they are unlikely to be housed at a site named after Trump. Last year, Poland proposed spending some $2 billion to build a new base informally designated as Fort Trump to host thousands of U.S. troops. Those plans fell through, but the United States did agree to send 1,000 more troops to the country.

Duda said on Wednesday that he had asked Trump to relocate some of the troops into his country and warned that major American withdrawals from the continent “would be very detrimental to European security.”

But European leaders are concerned about whatTrump might do. In his new book, Trump’s former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, confirmed reports that Trump had considered withdrawing from NATO altogether.

Several prominent Democrats criticized the visit before Duda’s arrival. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who is Polish- American, called on Trump to cancel the meeting, citing in a statement his “inappropriate efforts to insert himself into Polish domestic politics and boost President Duda’s reelection with a White House visit.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who helped to expand the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe the 1990s, also criticized the visit.

“I was proud to welcome a democratic Poland into NATO, and I am very concerned by the extent to which the current Polish governing party has retreated from the values at the heart of the alliance,” she said in a statement. “The United States should be standing up for those values, rather than rewarding President Duda with a White House visit days before the election.”