WARSAW, Poland – Jacek Szemplinski, like many of his countrymen, has a soft spot in his heart for Americans. He sees them as straight-talkers and practical people who use simple words to express big ideas.
But the Polish businessman has a more complicated view of President Donald Trump, who he regards as “a strong man” and “a fighter” but who he also fears is playing a dangerous game by waging a trade war with China.
“I have doubts about him,” Szemplinski said, pausing during a stroll through a downtown park in the Polish capital Saturday morning.
For Polish people who already harbored suspicions of the American president, Trump further fueled their skepticism when he announced abruptly Thursday that he was canceling a two-day trip to Poland so he could remain in the United States and monitor Hurricane Dorian, which is barreling toward the East Coast.
In his place, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived in Warsaw on Sunday morning. Pence will attend services commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II and a series of meetings on Sunday and Monday, including a bilateral discussion with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
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Szemplinski and other Poles don’t buy Trump’s explanation for pulling out of the trip.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do about the storm,” said Antoni Kwiatkowski, a music student who questioned Trump’s rationale for staying home.
“I don’t believe this storm is the real reason” for Trump canceling, Szemplinski agreed. “I think Trump doesn’t like somebody. I don’t know who. But he doesn’t like somebody.”
Though they may not always agree with the American president, the Polish people historically have held a sincere fondness for Americans and a deep respect for the presidency itself.
“Poland has been for a long time one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, if not the world,” said Daniel Fried, who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland for more than two years under former President Bill Clinton.
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“The Polish people have looked at the United States as their benefactor, their ally,” Fried said. “And they think, with some basis, that the United States is one of the early sponsors of their regaining their independence in 1918.”
Last summer, an outdoor photo exhibit in downtown Warsaw paid tribute to former President Woodrow Wilson and American diplomat Edward Mandell House – a close Wilson adviser known as “Colonel House,” even though he had no military background – for embracing and facilitating the cause of Polish independence.
“Nobody remembers that in the United States, outside of people who know the history,” Fried said. But, “the Poles have never forgotten.”
The U.S.-Polish relationship goes back even further and can be traced to the American Revolution, when Polish Colonel Casimir Pulaski fought the British alongside George Washington, said Heather Conley, an expert on European affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Our country is enriched by a strong Polish-American community, and we see Poland’s return to independence and American support for the Solidarity movement as a shared success,” Conley said. “They are a strong ally and partner to the U.S. In other words, this relationship transcends any one particular U.S. president.”
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Poland’s nationalist, right-wing government has embraced Trump and welcomed him enthusiastically during his first trip to Warsaw in 2017. The ruling party shares the president’s hard-line views on immigration and, like Trump, has often found itself in conflict with the rest of the European Union.
For his part, Trump has been eager to strengthen ties with the Polish government, which is looking to spend billions of dollars to buy F-35 jets and other weaponry from the United States as it seeks the establishment of a permanent U.S. military base in Poland.
During Pence’s visit to Warsaw, the two countries also are expected to sign a deal calling for them to work together to improve the security of Poland’s 5G telecommunications system as the Trump administration tries to counter the influence of the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
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But the Polish government’s affinity for the American leader isn’t necessarily shared by the Polish people, who, like the rest of Europe, are curious about, yet divided over, his presidency.
“Donald Trump – he’s very crazy,” said Michal Capucino, a restaurant worker biking in the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, a gigantic tower that Joseph Stalin considered his gift to the Polish people, who now regard it as a symbol of Soviet domination.
Kwiatkowski, the music student, said he dislikes Trump’s “extreme politics” and “ultra-dominating behavior.”
But Weronika Harutivnian, a bakery worker visiting relatives in Warsaw, said Trump has “a strong hand” and knows how to solve problems.
“People say he’s not a good president, but to me, he’s very good and he knows what to do,” she said.
For many Poles, “he makes us want to go to America,” she said.
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