The Polish government did everything it could to turn Tuesday’s visit into one of Trump’s more enjoyable moments.
Yet, somehow, Trump managed to offend the Poles so deeply that the fallout was all over Polish news sites on Wednesday morning.
What happened? At the end of their meeting, the two leaders agreed to sign a strategic partnership pact to boost defense, energy, trade and security ties. But what could have been a peaceful moment for both presidents immediately took an awkward turn.
While signing the document, Trump sat comfortably in his chair while the Polish leader was forced to stand next to him and awkwardly reach over the table to sign. Poland’s Duda still somehow managed to smile at the camera, as Trump looked on with a stern face. The scene was captured on camera by the White House and was tweeted out shortly after — much to the bewilderment of Polish journalists, politicians and researchers.
“It’s nice of President Trump that he moved a bit, because otherwise our president would have had to sign the document on his knees,” Polish radio correspondent Pawel Zuchowski sarcastically commented on Twitter.
In an interview with Polish news site Gazeta.pl, international diplomacy scholar Janusz Sibora called the incident an “offense.”
The Polish news site compared the meeting of the two allies with Trump’s ceremonial signing of an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, when both leaders sat at the same table.
“The message is clear: Americans do not respect Poles,” Sibora told the Polish news outlet. “If we sign such an important document in that way, we should ask ourselves whether this wasn’t detrimental to the honor of Poland.”
There was no sign, however, that Duda himself was bothered by the photo. Two days after his visit, Duda rejected the criticism on Thursday evening, writing on Twitter: “The mockery and assault of the leftist media and some politicians and commentators of known views show the success of the Washington D.C. visit.” The tweet was accompanied by a photo showing Duda standing next to Trump and holding their joint agreement.
In fact, much of the anger seems to have emanated from the opposition. “Signing a Polish-American declaration at the desk of the American president, while he is sitting, and [the Polish president] is standing is a symbolic confirmation [of] @AndrzejDuda as a customer [of] @realDonaldTrump. We have never been so low,” Pawel Zalewski of the opposition liberal-conservative party wrote on Twitter.
According to Polish tabloid Fakt, other politicians and former ministers described the picture as “unbelievable” and as a “humiliation.”
“I’m ashamed,” Roman Giertych, a former deputy prime minister, was quoted as saying by the paper. Many commentaries did not exclusively blame the Trump administration, however, but also their own government for refraining to raise objections to the White House.
On Facebook, an account associated with former centrist Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa appeared to troll Duda with a photo of Walesa sitting with Trump standing next to him. The photo appeared to have been taken during a prior meeting of the two, but it was unclear where or when it happened. “You find difference,” read the caption.
The angry responses following Duda’s White House visit come as the Polish government is seeking closer ties to the Trump administration, despite opposition protests. After a number of controversial measures, Poland has been increasingly at odds with the European Union, of which it is a member state. After its critics accused Poland of infringing upon judicial independence, the country was suspended from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary this week. The E.U. sanction was the latest in a string of attempts to rein in what critics say are undemocratic changes in the country.
But Poland’s right-wing government hopes to have found a powerful ally in Trump, who shares some of the same political goals and has refrained from joining the chorus of critics lashing out at what it sees as a dismantling of democratic rights in the center of Europe.
For months, Warsaw has tried to persuade the United States to set up a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland, to bolster the country’s defense against Russia. Poland appears to be willing to spend a substantial amount in exchange.
“If they’re willing to do that, it’s something we will certainly talk about,” Trump said Tuesday. But to more-critical observers watching from Warsaw, the photo that was released only a short time later spoke a very different language.
This post was updated on Sept. 21 to include a response by Polish President Duda.