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His reelection uncertain, Polish president seeks a boost from Trump

President Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda hold a news conference in the Rose Garden last year. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Polish President Andrzej Duda arrives at the White House on Wednesday for a visit he hopes will boost his unexpectedly tight reelection prospects just four days before Poland’s vote, according to Polish and U.S. officials.

Reminiscent of President Trump’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks before he faced a reelection vote last year, members of Duda’s right-wing Law and Justice party have openly touted the hastily organized trip as a rescue mission.

“We love Donald Trump, we think he’s a great president, and I do believe he’s going to help us win the election,” said Dominik Tarczynski, a party parliamentarian. “He’s going to help Andrzej Duda win.”

Duda has long been a Trump favorite, praised as “an exemplary ally” who has boosted defense spending and purchased expensive U.S. weapons systems.

While he was once thought a shoo-in for a second term, some polls show Duda could lose to Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowki if the June 28 vote leads to a July runoff. As Duda’s campaign has flagged, he has increased his focus on stirring up anti-LGBTQ sentiment — branding gay and transgender rights as an “ideology” akin to communism — in an effort to galvanize his right-wing base at a time of economic hardship worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Emphasizing strong relations with Washington is particularly crucial for Duda, given Poland’s growing isolation within Europe as his government has become increasingly autocratic. The European Union has censured Poland for failing to uphold democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights, and has said his government’s judicial revisions threaten the independence of the courts.

Poland’s new tactic for getting a U.S. military base: Pitch it as ‘Fort Trump’

In addition to receiving Trump’s political blessing, Duda also hopes Trump’s order earlier this month to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany will translate into progress on plans announced by the two leaders last year to increase the U.S. military presence in Poland.

“The president is very much looking to discussions on that topic,” Krzysztof Szczerski, Duda’s top cabinet official, said in an interview. The trip is largely to “present our position” and clarify U.S. decisions, he said.

“What will be the next steps? What will happen to these troops?” in Germany, Szczerski said. “Is it just reallocation or is it withdrawal of the troops?”

Any troop increase in Poland is “politically important” as it shows “the reality of our alliance,” he said, while cautioning that it was never Poland’s wish to draw troops away from Germany. “We’d like to have the U.S. military presence in Poland, but not at the expense of others.”

In response to questions to the White House about the timing and reason for Duda’s trip, a senior administration official said in an email that the two leaders “will discuss further advancing our cooperation on defense, as well as trade, energy, and telecommunications security.”

Trump’s order to the Pentagon to quickly produce plans for the German drawdown has sparked military concern and strong pushback from a number of senior Republican lawmakers.

U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Trump has long called out Germany for its low defense expenditure. But the officials noted the withdrawal order, and the Duda invitation, followed on the heels of a telephone call with Angela Merkel last month in which the German Chancellor effectively quashed Trump’s plans to hold a Group of Seven summit in Washington by declining to attend.

“It wasn’t the sole cause and it wasn’t the start of the discussion,” according to one U.S. official. Richard Grenell, Trump’s former ambassador to Germany, and Georgette Mosbacher, the ambassador to Poland, “had been pushing this for a long time,” the official said.

When Reuters reported last week that planning to establish what Duda once called “Fort Trump” in Poland had lagged amid funding and infrastructure disputes, Mosbacher branded the report “More fake news!”

“Negotiations are on track!’ she tweeted. “President Trump and Duda’s vision for increased U.S. presence in Poland will be even greater than originally outlined. Announcement coming soon.”

A second U.S. official suggested the announcement of Duda’s third trip to the White House, and the possibility of a troop deployment announcement for Poland, “ties into to trying to smooth over” Republican and military upheaval “after this announcement about force posture in Germany.”

This official and others questioned whether a Trumpian hat tip to Duda indicating progress was being made on the troop negotiations reflected reality.

“People like the idea” that a German withdrawal could mean a stepped-up Polish deployment, the official said, referring to the White House. But Trump’s insistence on removing troops from Germany has raised more questions than it has answered.

Moving 9,500 troops, along with their families and equipment is a logistical headache, even without decisions about where they would go. The U.S. mission there is not to defend Germany but to provide a forward presence for U.S. troops in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to house the military’s Africa Command, Africom, and other regional headquarters, as well as major U.S. military medical facilities. The expensive, long-standing infrastructure that supports those missions in Germany does not exist in Poland.

In 2018, Duda offered to contribute $2 billion toward the permanent basing of a full U.S. Army division in Poland, far less than moving and housing the troops would cost. Instead, in a deal forged last year, the administration agreed to add another 1,000 troops to a 4,500-strong armored brigade that already rotates in and out of Poland.

According to Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla M. Gleason, no decision has been made on where those additional units will come from. She said the plan also calls for a forward division headquarters in Poland; a joint-use combat training center; an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance squadron; and other enhancements.

Progress on implementing what has already been decided has also been awaiting negotiations over a formal bilateral defense cooperation agreement that, among other things, would provide U.S. troops immunity from civilian prosecution in Poland. But talks have been largely suspended during the pandemic and following the Pentagon departure of John Rood as undersecretary of defense for policy. Rood, who had questioned Trump’s withholding of military assistance for Ukraine last year, was among a number of national security officials the president asked to resign in the wake of his impeachment trial.

As planning for Poland has stalled, “any kind of actual planning” for withdrawal from Germany, “I think, has not happened yet,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson told reporters last week in Brussels. “I don’t think that we have any kind of timeline that I have heard of. So I really think that much is in the phase of being looked at, but nothing firm has been set.”

Poland’s desire for more permanently based troops was never popular among other NATO allies because it was seen as “transactional security,” in the words of one of several senior NATO diplomats who discussed the sensitive U.S. relationship on the condition of anonymity.

NATO policymakers disapproved of what they saw as Poland’s efforts to lure troops away from Germany, and to win Trump’s favor, by offering money and other concessions through one-on-one bargaining, rather than as part of an alliance-wide discussion about what made the best strategic sense.

Despite what some NATO diplomats described as schadenfreude inside the alliance as Poland’s plans have not moved forward, European policymakers would also welcome any successful attempt to keep on the continent at least some of the forces Trump says he wants to pull out of Germany.

Some within NATO are skeptical that the German withdrawal will ever happen, pointing to Trump’s reelection polling numbers and the amount of time it takes to plan such a major military maneuver.

“Everyone’s eyes are turned to the other side of the ocean,” one NATO diplomat said. Officials are “expecting President Trump not to be able to implement it. People hope that this will not come real.”

For Duda, the Washington visit is a “last card” to play, in hopes that “his voters will remember his picture with President Trump at the White House,” said former Polish defense minister Tomasz Siemoniak, of the opposition Civic Platform.

In recent days, Duda has toned down his campaign rhetoric. The speech linking the LGBTQ community to communism came as Duda’s campaign published a “family charter” stressing that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“Certainly the language used in the campaign is shocking for many here,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.

Even in staunchly Catholic Poland, Duda’s comments caused an outcry that led him to invite a group of LGBT activists to a meeting. Only one accepted the offer and told reporters he left without shaking the president’s hand after Duda cited free speech to defend his comments.

Mosbacher pushed back against a Polish newspaper report last week that she had intervened with Duda to ask him to rein in his rhetoric, even as Washington cringed.

She tweeted that she had not spoken to Duda but added, “But let me be clear: the US condemns discrimination or hatred based on race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.”

Morris reported from Berlin and Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Dariusz Kalan in Warsaw and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.