President Trump welcomed President Andrzej Duda of Poland to the White House on Wednesday, his first meeting with a foreign leader since February and one that Democrats called an unseemly effort to boost a European ally whose country is tilting toward autocracy days before a close re-election vote.
Mr. Duda, who has served as Poland’s president since 2015, has presided over political restrictions on Poland’s judiciary, media and civil society while becoming one of Mr. Trump’s preferred foreign partners. The Polish election is on Sunday, a fact Mr. Trump made no effort to gloss over.
“I do believe he has an election coming up, and I do believe he will be successful,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Duda during a news conference the men held in the Rose Garden.
Pressed on whether he was seeking to tip the scales in the Polish election, Mr. Trump deflected the question.
“He’s doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him,” Mr. Trump said. “I don’t think he needs my help.”
But it is clear that Mr. Trump would be happy to see Mr. Duda retain power. The two leaders have met one on one at least five times, including three times at the White House. Two years ago Mr. Duda hosted the president in Warsaw, where Mr. Trump delivered a speech calling for nationalist, anti-immigration policies worldwide. Mr. Duda has even offered to host a “Fort Trump” that would house U.S. troops in his country, although that plan has not materialized.
His visit had no clear official purpose, analysts said, and amounted to a photo opportunity for a populist leader whom polls show with just 40 percent support heading into an election that requires a majority to avoid a runoff.
“This was really an endorsement masquerading as a meeting,” said Molly Montgomery, a former career diplomat and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ms. Montgomery noted that Mr. Trump “didn’t even try to hide or gloss over the election piece here.”
Mr. Trump has not met in Washington with a top foreign official since February, when he hosted Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. recognizes as the country’s rightful president. His last trip abroad was later that month when he went to India, where he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He tried without success to coax several heads of state to a Group of 7 summit in the Washington area this month, an event he said would signal a “return to normalcy.” But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany quashed the idea in a statement saying the coronavirus made such a gathering unsafe.
For Mr. Duda, the political benefits clearly outweighed any risk of travel, even if his visit violated a longstanding American political norm.
“There is a good rule in U.S. diplomacy where you don’t do that,” said Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Poland in the Clinton administration. “Trump doesn’t much care about those things, but the reason you don’t do it is because it injects the U.S. into the domestic politics of another country, and it alienates a whole bunch of people there’s no reason to alienate.”
The leaders said they discussed a range of issues, including efforts against the coronavirus, Poland’s purchase of liquid natural gas from the United States and American assistance for Poland’s civil nuclear program.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Poland than right now,” Mr. Trump said in brief remarks to reporters in the Oval Office before the news conference. “I have a very good personal relationship with the president.”
The men also discussed American troop levels in Poland, which could rise if Mr. Trump follows through on his stated plans to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany, capping America’s permanent presence there at 25,000 troops.
Many officials in Poland — whose battle-scarred history leaves it among the European nations most wary of potential Russian aggression — are hopeful that Mr. Trump will relocate some of those troops to their country, which now hosts some 4,500 American service members on a rotating basis.
But Trump officials say no such plans have been set. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said military officials were still drawing up options for the president.
“We’re going to be reducing our forces in Germany,” Mr. Trump said. “Some will be coming home and some will be going to other places — but Poland would be one of those other places, other places in Europe.”
If more American troops do go to Poland, they are unlikely to be housed at a site named after Mr. Trump. Last year, Poland proposed spending some $2 billion to build a new base informally designated as Fort Trump to host thousands of American troops. Those plans fell through, but the United States did agree to send 1,000 more troops to the country.
Mr. Duda said on Wednesday that he had asked Mr. Trump to relocate some of the troops into his country and warned that major American withdrawals from the continent “would be very detrimental to European security.”
But European leaders are concerned about what Mr. Trump might do. In his new book, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, confirmed reports that Mr. Trump had considered withdrawing from NATO altogether.
Several prominent Democrats criticized the visit before Mr. Duda’s arrival. Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who is Polish-American, called on Mr. Trump to cancel the meeting, citing in a statement his “inappropriate efforts to insert himself into Polish domestic politics and boost President Duda’s re-election with a White House visit.”
“Unfortunately, President Trump’s invitation is not surprising given his favorability toward strongmen and those who undermine democratic institutions,” she added.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who helped to expand the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe the 1990s, also criticized the visit.
“I was proud to welcome a democratic Poland into NATO, and I am very concerned by the extent to which the current Polish governing party has retreated from the values at the heart of the alliance,” she said in a statement. “The United States should be standing up for those values, rather than rewarding President Duda with a White House visit days before the election.”
Ms. Kaptur and others also criticized Mr. Duda for running a socially conservative campaign that speaks of “L.G.B.T. ideology” and has compared gay rights activists to communist revolutionaries.
“President Duda and his party promote horrifying homophobic and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. stereotypes and policies that run counter to the human rights and values that America should strive to uphold,” Representative Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement last week.
Mr. Fried said that Mr. Duda was not the driving force behind his country’s recent authoritarian measures, which have been pushed by other leaders of his right-wing Law and Justice party, which controls Poland’s Parliament.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Duda also found unlikely common cause over recent efforts by anti-racism protesters in the United States to deface and topple federal statues and monuments, which Mr. Trump says he will make a crime punishable by 10 years in prison through an executive order. Mr. Duda lamented that during demonstrations near the White House this month, protesters defaced a statue in Lafayette Square of the Polish general Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War.
“For completely incomprehensible reasons to us, that monument was devastated,” he said, adding that it had since been restored.
Marc Santora contributed reporting.