WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Donald Trump's decision to cancel a planned trip to Poland to deal with a hurricane comes as a sharp blow to Poland's populist government, which had been counting on the visit for a boost ahead of October elections.
Trump is instead sending Vice President Mike Pence to observances Sunday marking the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II and for meetings with Polish leaders Monday expected to include new military and energy deals. Trump announced late Thursday that it was "very important" to stay home to deal with Hurricane Dorian, which is predicted to make landfall in Florida on Monday.
A top aide to Polish President Andrzej Duda, Krzysztof Szczerski, said Trump apologized in a phone call with Duda and promised to reschedule when possible.
"It's very understandable and obvious that the president, who is also responsible for emergency situations in the United States, should be there and wants to be there," Szczerski said in comments Friday to the TVN broadcaster.
Some political opponents, however, voiced satisfaction that the ruling party lost the potential electoral boost that it had counted on six weeks before Oct. 13 parliamentary elections.
The populist Law and Justice party is already far ahead in the polls, riding the wave of a booming economy and popular social spending policies. Still, it will be fighting to hold on to the parliamentary majority that it now holds.
Some called it a reminder to the government not to rely too heavily on the United States at the expense of other international alliances, as some believe the ruling Law and Justice party has been doing with nationalist policies that have created tensions with European partners.
Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, a former interior minister with a centrist opposition party, told the government to take it as a "warning."
"It may be the same with U.S. military assistance in a crisis situation in Poland. This president is unpredictable and one cannot base the entire Polish security policy on him," Sienkiewicz said on Twitter.
The change of plans also deprives Trump of a chance to bask in an enthusiastic welcome abroad. On his first visit to the conservative nation, in 2017, he was met by flag-waving crowds chanting his name — a sharp contrast to protests and "Trump Baby" balloons that have greeted him in London and elsewhere.
It's the second time Trump has canceled a trip in recent weeks. The president had originally been scheduled to fly from Poland to Copenhagen for his first official trip to Denmark, but canceled after leaders there mocked his desire to purchase Greenland.
For Poland's government, which has been in conflict with the European Union over a controversial overhaul of its justice system, Trump's presence was a chance to highlight the nation's successes and bask in the global limelight.
On this government's watch, Poland has officially transitioned to a "developed market," and the prime minister — a former banker — pledged this week that Poland next year will have its first deficit-free budget in the 30 years since communism collapsed.
The Law and Justice government has also dramatically reduced Polish dependence on Russian gas — an energy source increasingly provided by U.S. companies shipping it across sea — and has cultivated a stronger military relationship with Washington.
Above all, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, President Duda and ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the real power behind the government — would have had a chance to show voters that the party's populist policies have not left it internationally isolated, as the opposition claims.
Still, more than 40 other world leaders will attend commemorations marking the start of the war, which killed more than 70 million people over six years.
The Pence-led delegation will also include other high-ranking U.S. officials and is expected to result in some concrete steps, including refining a plan announced in June to increase the current level of U.S. troops in Poland from 4,500 to 5,500, a plan Russia has vowed to meet with retaliation.
Perhaps the biggest symbolic reward of all would involve the U.S. giving a concrete timeline to finally lifting visa requirements for Poles traveling to the U.S.
The bureaucratic hassle, cost and risk of rejection in the visa application process has long made Poles feel like second-class allies compared to Western Europeans. And it has stung all the more given Polish military support for U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund think tank, says there is no issue of greater relevance to regular Polish people.
"It's been a thorn in Polish-American relations for several decades now, and if it happens it will be a big deal, and I am convinced it will," Baranowski said.