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Trump Meets Duda in First Visit From Foreign Leader Since March

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/24/2020 Marek Strzelecki and Justin Sink
Andrzej Duda et al. standing in front of a building: LGBT Rights Remain Main Theme In Poland's Presidential Election © Getty Images LGBT Rights Remain Main Theme In Poland's Presidential Election

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday in his first encounter with a foreign leader since the coronavirus pandemic prompted global lockdowns in March, in a visit both leaders hope provides a political boost for looming elections.

The Polish president is traveling to Washington just days before he seeks re-election in the hope he can secure a fresh commitment from Trump to deploy additional U.S. military forces in his Eastern European nation. Consummating a defense pact may help Duda reverse a narrative that he’s struggled in his quest to get thousands of American troops stationed near the border with Russia.

Trump, who has long seen the nationalist Polish leader as a kindred spirit, is hoping the visit can signal a return to normalcy even as the coronavirus continues to ravage swaths of America.

The American president has seen his political support erode as the outbreak claimed more than 121,000 American lives and collapsed the economy. He’s recently filled his schedule with travel and high-profile events in an effort to move past the pandemic.

The discussion between the presidents will include health security, 5G technology, and the “Three Seas Initiative” intended to better integrate Eastern European energy, transportation, and technology infrastructure, according to three U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting beforehand. The three seas are the Baltic, the Black and the Adriatic.

Polish and U.S. officials also plan to work on the final elements of a defense cooperation agreement that would see the U.S. Air Force rotate an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron into Poland and establish an aerial port of debarkation.

The two countries are also finalizing details of deploying a U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Team, including an agreement on where the troops would be stationed and whether additional infrastructure is needed to support U.S. troops in the country, according to one of the officials.

Expectations are high in Poland, the biggest NATO member in Eastern Europe, that Trump may announce a sweeping defense deal with the nation, including bolstering the number of U.S. troops stationed in Poland to 2,000 from an earlier planned 1,000, according to a Monday report of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna newspaper.

The U.S. military will also relocate 30 F-16 fighter jets from Germany to Poland, the newspaper said, without saying where it got the information. Poland may also sign a deal to purchase U.S. military helicopters, the newspaper added.

Trump this month announced that he’d cut the number of American troops in Germany -- Poland’s neighbor -- raising concerns over the longevity of the American military commitment to Europe and further straining transatlantic relations.

U.S. officials declined to comment on the Polish media reports, saying it was premature to discuss specific troop reallocations or equipment movements.

But such an announcement could prove a boon to Duda, whose election has been delayed over a month because of the pandemic.

Competitive Elections

Duda saw his popularity jump in April as the face of the government’s Covid relief efforts. He still leads opinion polls, but his support has declined as more citizens are hit by the economic crisis. Most surveys show the incumbent winning the first round on Sunday, while falling short of an outright majority, and neck-and-neck with his leading rival, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, in a second-round run-off on July 12.

Trump too has seen a decline in public support as unemployment has soared and criticism of his handling of protests over police brutality have intensified. He has fallen behind his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, in both national polls and surveys of key battleground states.

The president has looked to reverse that trend by pitching Americans on an expedited return to normalcy, even as coronavirus infections have begun to accelerate in some U.S. states that led the way on reopening.

On Saturday, Trump held his first campaign rally in three months, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and on Tuesday he spoke to a youth group at a megachurch in Phoenix following a trip to the Mexican border for a briefing on his signature wall.

Members of both the U.S. and Polish delegations will be tested for the coronavirus infection before the meeting, according to one of the U.S. officials.

“The visit comes at a critical time for both the United States and Poland, as we reopen our countries after months of battling the coronavirus pandemic,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.

The trip may also refocus attention on the president’s history of sidestepping human rights concerns, with Democrats and some LGBT rights groups denouncing the visit over Duda’s use of anti-gay rhetoric.

“President Duda and his party promote horrifying homophobic and anti-LGBTQ stereotypes and policies that run counter to the human rights and values that America should strive to uphold,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said in a statement last week.

He was referring to Poland’s nationalist Law & Justice Party, which has repeatedly clashed with the European Union over issues ranging from its rejection of EU quotas on housing refugees to a sweeping court overhaul.

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