Poland Had the Royal Castle Ready. Then Trump Canceled His Trip.


WARSAW — Elaborate military escorts stood ready. Chefs were at work on a grand state dinner at the Royal Castle. A concert was cued up for television and radio broadcast. The annual commemoration of the outbreak of World War II was even moved from Gdansk to Warsaw, where crowds would be bigger.

Poland’s governing party had carefully choreographed a day of pomp and ceremony to welcome President Trump this weekend — a powerful reminder to its own people, just six weeks before national elections, of the strong bond between the government and Trump administration.

Except that he will not be here.

Mr. Trump announced on Thursday that he would remain in the United States to monitor an impending hurricane, forecast to hit Florida next week, and send Vice President Mike Pence in his place. It was a blow to the leadership in Warsaw, which hoped to use the moment to bolster its standing and deflect criticism that it is undermining the nation’s Constitution.

The United States and its president are seen more positively in Poland than anywhere else in Europe, where trust in American leadership has dropped under Mr. Trump and he is generally viewed negatively. So at a time when the leaders of many allied nations are careful not to seem too close to him, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party embraces him.

Even as Poland has clashed with the European Union and its fellow member states over a wide range of issues, from environmental policy to judicial independence, it has continued to forge — and boast about — closer ties with the Trump administration.

President Andrzej Duda, in an interview shortly after he returned from his second visit to the White House this summer, described his relationship with Mr. Trump as “the most effective international cooperation out of all I have.”

“I find it very easy and good to cooperate with President Donald Trump,” he said. “Because he’s very down to earth, very concrete. He tells me what he wants; he asks me what he can get from us.”

In June, the two countries agreed to add 1,000 troops to the 4,500-person American deployment in Poland, a NATO member country. That drew an angry reaction from Russia and crowing from Polish leaders, who had also appealed for construction of a new American base, even promising to call it Fort Trump.

On Friday, Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s minister of national defense, announced an agreement on six locations where the United States forces will be based — news the government had hoped to break, to some fanfare, with Mr. Trump present. He said Mr. Trump’s cancellation was understandable.

Critics of the government worried that Mr. Trump’s visit would divert attention from concerns that Law and Justice had set the country on a dangerous course since taking power in 2015, undermining the Constitution, stoking cultural division, casting gays and lesbians as enemies of the state, attacking the free press and drifting dangerously away from the democratic society the country fought so hard to secure after decades of Communist rule.

The Trump administration has been largely silent on these issues. Instead, it has consistently praised Poland as one of the few NATO allies to meet military spending commitments.

When Mr. Trump made his first visit to Warsaw in 2017, and cheering crowds were bused in from around the country, he praised Poland as a defender of Western civilization, much as Law and Justice does, but made no mention of the judicial overhaul that was already riling the nation.

If he had continued in that vein of praise, the implicit stamp of approval from his visit could have been of real political value to Law and Justice, as its critics feared.

In an open letter to Mr. Trump made public on Monday, 23 Polish former diplomats called on the American president to reaffirm the importance of a unified Europe and the fundamental values of Western democracy, which they said their country was losing.

“An isolated Poland, surrounded by enemies, conflicted with its neighbors and, as was the case before World War II, reliant solely on geographically distant alliances, is on course to another catastrophe,” the group, the Conference of Polish Ambassadors, wrote.

“Mr. President, you are coming to a country where the rule of law is no longer respected,” the former diplomats wrote. “Your powerful voice calling for tolerance and mutual respect, as well as compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and other laws, may have historical significance.”

Mr. Trump, however, has shown no sign that he shares their concerns, instead pursuing a transactional foreign policy with trade deals and arms purchases at the forefront of his agenda. He has praised autocratic leaders, denigrated democratic allies and undercut the international institutions that have been built since World War II to promote security and prosperity.

Media outlets in Poland that are friendly to the government were quick to condemn the dissident diplomats’ letter.

“They cannot accept the fact that other, new people have the right to create Polish foreign policy,” Ryszard Zoltaniecki, a sociologist and diplomat, told the right-wing news site wPolityce.

Law and Justice and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician, have found in Mr. Trump the rare Western leader with a natural affinity for the government in Warsaw. Each has built a base of support among conservatives with appeals to nationalism, a sense of grievance and opposition to immigration.

Before Mr. Trump’s crowds were chanting “build the wall,” before he was talking about an “invasion” from Latin American nations and barring Muslims entry, Mr. Kaczynski was using the migration crisis of 2015 — which had little effect on Poland — to paint an image of a continent under siege, with Poland playing the role of defender of Christendom.

Mr. Kaczynski and Mr. Trump have assembled constituencies by appealing to voters who feel that they have been marginalized, their voices stymied by the high priests of political correctness, their traditions threatened by global forces beyond their control. Their support is especially strong in the smaller towns and rural areas whose fortunes have lagged while cities have thrived.

President Duda said that the party in power before 2015, Civic Platform, “was politically oriented toward such a model of development where massive investment outlays would be invested into large cities in the hope that their development would radiate and spread all around.”

“Unfortunately this has failed,” he added. “And as a result it produced massive disparities between cities and small towns.”

Mr. Duda said in the interview that his conversations with Mr. Trump in Washington focused almost exclusively on security, energy and economic matters. Mr. Trump’s main concern, he said, was why American “taxpayers should lay out that much money for European defense if the European taxpayer is not keen on spending so much.”

Mr. Trump has castigated other NATO countries for not meeting a target of spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense, though the alliance has set a goal of reaching that level in 2024. The president has even talked about pulling out of NATO, a worrisome prospect for Poland, which sees membership as a measure of protection from its intimidating neighbor, Russia.

Mr. Duda endorsed the spending target in terms that could have come straight from the White House.

“I attach a lot of importance to this 2 percent of G.D.P. spending and I want to intensify and to step up this spending in Poland,” he said, “because if we want to have these security guarantees from the U.S. and NATO, it’s like, it all boils down to fair burden-sharing.”

Questions about his country’s commitment to democratic principles did not come up in his meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Duda added.

“What I find very painful are all these charges that democracy is really shaken in Poland, that we have been switching into some authoritarian regime,” he said. “It takes time, people are learning democracy.”

On Friday, Polish leaders were already voicing the hope that Mr. Trump would reschedule his visit, and soon. The military escorts, the castle, the chefs and the musicians would no doubt be ready if he does.


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