The story of President Donald Trump’s early relationship with Europe is already a tortured one. But that’s not true in Poland, where Trump enjoys a sort of political kinship.
Warsaw’s right-wing Law and Justice party rose to power as its officials manipulated the news media, threatened judicial independence, refused to accept refugees and stoked ethnic nationalism.
Critics say the same about Trump, who landed in Warsaw on Wednesday just days after tweeting a photo-shopped image of himself body-slamming a CNN logo and less than two weeks after the Supreme Court allowed a modified version of his controversial travel ban to take effect.
That overlapping political vision is a source of concern for European Union officials who consider both Trump and Poland’s nationalist ruling party a threat to the EU.
“Donald Trump will presumably praise Poland’s unique take on liberal democracy” during his speech in Warsaw tomorrow, said Tomáš Valášek, Europe director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Slovak government official.
“In doing so, he will complicate efforts by the rest of the EU to push back against Warsaw’s attempts to stifle the judiciary and restrict the freedom of speech,” Valášek said.
As of last week, Polish officials weren’t expecting to hear a critique from Trump like the one President Barack Obama offered during last year’s NATO summit in Warsaw, at which Obama expressed “concerns” over Poland’s democratic institutions.
Warsaw would not welcome “a public statement of a big foreign power about our internal affairs,” said Poland’s envoy to the U.S., Piotr Wilczek, in a briefing at the Polish Embassy in Washington.
It’s still possible Trump’s visit here won’t be the lovefest the Polish government is betting on: Trump may praise the former Polish President Lech Wałęsa, a harsh critic of the Law and Justice party’s governing style, who may be seated in the audience Thursday.
But few observers expect a full-fledged rebuke.
“The Trump circle and Poland see each other as mutual vindication,” said a former senior State Department official who worked on European issues. “The nationalist element of the government saw Trump’s election as a validation of their approach. That’s why the Poles are so eager to have him come.”
Asked about Poland’s backsliding on press freedom during a White House media briefing last week, national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not respond directly, instead citing Poland’s NATO and EU membership.
National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn responded to a follow-up by nothing that U.S. negotiators had “fought very vigorously to protect intellectual property rights and to protect freedom of speech in [the] Internet.”
There may be an electoral calculus behind Trump’s stop here. During last year’s election, Trump campaign officials believed that Rust Belt voters from central and eastern European backgrounds would be crucial to his November victory.
This spring, Dr. Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon, the chairman of Trump’s Polish-American advisory council, argued that voters of Polish descent helped tip states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin away from Hillary Clinton.
“What we need now is to build on our initial successes to make Polish-Americans fully fledged members of the emerging Republican majority,” Cannon told an audience at the Institute of World Politics in April.
Trump will likely stoke Polish pride during his Thursday address from a historic square commemorating a 1944 anti-Nazi uprising, one of the country’s most important historical chapters.
Many Poles see the uprising as a tale of both abandonment by the U.S. and Russian nefariousness.
After initial success, the uprising was ruthlessly crushed by the Nazi occupiers — with Polish leaders saying they were abandoned by the U.S.-led allied powers, from whom they sought more help.
The Soviet Union encouraged the uprising but then declined to assist the Poles as they were slaughtered — in part because Moscow was happy to see Polish independence figures done away with.
One exhibit at the uprising museum features the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, during a 1978 speech, saying that Poland “was deserted” by its ostensible allies, before its ultimate conquest by the Soviet Red Army.