U.S. President Donald Trump has used his state visit to Poland to settle some domestic scores.
In a press conference Thursday in Warsaw, Trump segued from a comment about possible military action against North Korea to his posting of a doctored video showing him as a wrestler body-slamming a man with the CNN logo in place of his head.
The now-infamous GIF, which the President reposted from a user on Reddit, has been sharply criticized as condoning violence against the media. But in Poland, Trump took the opportunity to take another dig at CNN.
“I will say that CNN has really taken it too seriously, and I think they’ve hurt themselves very, very badly,” Trump said, adding that the cable news outlet has “some pretty serious problems.”
He added: “They have been fake news for a long time. They’ve been covering me in a very dishonest way.”
President Trump’s most recent dustup with CNN began on Sunday morning when the President tweeted a 28-second altered video clip from his 2007 appearance at a World Wrestling Entertainment event. The CNN logo was superimposed on top of WWE owner Vince McMahon, the man Trump body-slams in the video.
CNN itself became part of the story when it investigated the man behind the original video post, published under the username HanA**holeSolo. The Reddit user in question apologized for posting the video and took down the offending post, leading CNN to announce that it would not publish his real name, as he had “showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again.”
CNN, however, said it “reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” leading some, particularly in the right-wing media sphere, to accuse the channel of blackmailing the creator of the video.
Away from the international press, Trump played more to the Polish audience. In a speech at the monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising on Krasinski Square, the President praised Poland and the Polish people for what he called their defense of identity, sovereignty and tradition. It was a message seemingly designed to appeal to supporters of Poland’s ruling Law and Order Party, which has made policies of national identity, and anti-immigration, key pillars of its government.
Trump linked both the fight against Islamic terrorism and the battle “against government bureaucracy” to the 1944 Uprising, saying Poles today defending their culture and identity were the true descendants of the Home Army fighters who battled the Nazis.
“The fundamental question of our times is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said, to a wildly cheering crowd.
But the images of Poles clapping and enthusiastically chanting “Donald Trump,” which they did several times during the President’s speech, belie a great political divide in Poland. While state-run media, and right-wing sites on the web, were full of praise for Trump, liberal commercial news channels, such as TVN24 and Polsat News, were much more critical of the President and his state visit.
“The media in Poland is very deeply divided between those who are for and against the government,” Adam Balcer, a national researcher in Poland for the European Council of Foreign Relations, told The Hollywood Reporter. “The pro-government media is very pro-Trump and they see this visit as a chance to show that Poland is a great nation and that that we, not Germany, are the main ally of the U.S. in Europe. The more liberal media is afraid that Trump’s visit will act as an endorsement for the (Polish) government’s program of dismantling liberal democracy and media freedom here.”
Shortly after taking power in late 2015, the Law and Justice Party, under Polish President Andrzej Duda and party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have made several changes to Polish law eliminating or weakening many of the system’s checks and balances and have co-opted public-owned news media to make it more pro-government.
“It now produces excellent propaganda,” said Balcer, ironically, “better even than under communism.”
In his speech, President Trump did make reference to “freedom of speech” as one of the key Western values Poland and the U.S. share but stopped short of any criticism of the Duda government.
Speaking to THR at the Karlovy Vary film festival in neighboring Czech Republic, Oscar-winning Polish composer, Jan A.P Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland) said that Trump’s visit comes at a time when Polish society is both deeply divided and gripped by a sense of danger.
Acutely aware of Poland’s historically vulnerable position in Europe – the country has for long been a battleground for the conflicts of the continent’s major powers – most Poles were adopting a restrained attitude towards the U.S president’s visit, he said.
“The majority of society is traditionally sympathetic towards visits by American presidents and the country is hoping for the best,” Kaczmarek said.
Kaczmarek, who spent 28 years in Hollywood and now divides his year between L.A. and Poland – where he founded the Transatlantyk Film Festival, which kicks off in Lodz, Poland later this month with Edward Norton among its star guests – added: “People are being rather restrained in their response. Every Pole knows we are in danger again and if you have a visit of a U.S. president you know these visits may carry consequences and therefore one needs to be responsible.”
Trump, however, did make several statements that Poles of all political leanings can support, including chastising Russia for its “aggression” towards its neighbors and endorsing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance, which obliges all NATO allies to come to each other’s defense in the event of an attack.Trump has explicitly failed to do so during his previous European trip. Poland, wary of Russia, sees NATO and Article 5 as a key bulwark against possible military action by Moscow.
President Trump made Poland the first stop on his European tour, before heading to Hamburg, Germany and the G20 summit of leading industrial nations. He is scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hamburg Thursday evening and will have a face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Nick Holdsworth in Karlovy Vary contributed to this report.