Donald Trump said the survival of the west was at risk, as he lashed out at hostile forces ranging from Islamic terrorism to Russia, statism and secularism, during a speech in Poland.
At the start of a four-day trip to Europe, the US president gave a highly nationalist address in Warsaw suggesting that a lack of collective resolve could doom an alliance that had endured through the cold war.
“As the Polish experience reminds us, the defence of the west ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail,” Trump said at the site of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive.”
Trump, who delivered the speech on Thursday before flying to Hamburg for the G20 summit and bilateral meetings with the leaders of China, Russia and Germany, painted a picture of the west facing existential challenges in the effort to “defend our civilisation” from terrorism, bureaucracy and the erosion of traditions.
Trump pointed to Poland, which in the last century endured Nazi and Soviet occupations, as an example of resolve. “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never forgotten who they are,” he said.
In a nod to the conservative values he shares with Poland’s controversial ruling Law and Justice party, Trump also called on the west to defend its traditions.
“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” he said. “We must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”
According to Polish press reports, Trump was enticed to Warsaw by promises of a rapturous reception. The Polish government, which paid for supporters to be bussed in from provincial areas, appeared to have delivered, as the president was greeted by a boisterous, highly partisan, crowd in Krasinski Square, one of Warsaw’s smaller public spaces.
The crowd expressed its sympathies ahead of Trump’s address, chanting the name of a Law and Justice politician as he took his seat and chanting “thieves” and “traitors” at opposition politicians as they entered the event’s VIP area.
The US president’s address was regularly interrupted by chants of “Donald Trump!” and “USA”, though he hit a less popular note when he praised the contribution to Poland’s freedom of Lech Walesa, the former dissident, president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has long been denounced by Law and Justice leaders as a traitor and Communist informant.
For the first time Trump said he “stood by” article 5 of the Nato charter – the provision requiring members to defend each other from attack – but he coupled that much-sought promise with a fresh attack on unnamed Nato states for “failing to meet their full and fair financial obligations on defence spending”.
He claimed his tough criticism of those states that had not met the Nato target of raising defence spending to 2% of GDP was paying off, with billions more being committed to defence across Europe.
Trump made repeated references to threats posed by Islamic terror. “Our borders will always be closed to extremism and terrorism,” he said. “We cannot accept those who reject our values and use hatred to justify violence.”
He made a rare criticism of Russia, accusing Moscow of “destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere”, and claiming Vladimir Putin was supporting “hostile regimes including Syria and Iran”.
He also issued a Reaganesque call to tackle bureaucracy, which he framed as more than just an inconvenience or byproduct of a rules-based society. “On both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger – one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles. The steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The west became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
In addition to the people gathering around Krasinski Square, many of whom appeared to have turned up out of curiosity, Trump was faced by a message lasered on to the city’s Stalinist-era Palace of Culture that read “No Trump, Yes Paris”, a reference to the Paris climate change agreement from which Trump withdrew the US.
A small left-wing party held a protest with activists dressed as women from The Handmaid’s Tale, an American TV drama series based on a novel about a future totalitarian society, in protest over Trump’s treatment of women.
Some of Trump’s supporters were also disgruntled. Most of the space in Krasinski Square, Warsaw’s fourth or fifth largest public space, was taken up by VIP seating and media and security zones, leaving many supporters who had been bussed into Warsaw from the countryside, perhaps early in the morning, to stand in nearby side streets.
“They should let us in with them, after all they are here because of us,” one supporter told a reporter, referring to government politicians. “Not one of them looked at us as they walked in.”
Earlier in the day, Trump and Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, discussed their disapproval of their respective countries’ domestic media outlets, as Trump defended his criticism of CNN and his tweet depicting him body-slamming a figure bearing a CNN logo.
“They have been fake news for a long time, and they have been covering me in a dishonest way,” Trump said, as Duda nodded enthusiastically. “We don’t want fake news.”
After Poland’s ruling Law and Justice assumed office in 2015, Duda signed a media law allowing the government to take political control of state media outlets. Liberal media outlets have been squeezed financially by the cancellation of subscriptions by state institutions, and the withdrawal of advertising revenues.
Asked about North Korea’s recent missile tests and Trump’s planned response, the US president replied: “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I don’t like to talk about what I have planned. I have some pretty severe things we’re thinking about. I don’t draw red lines.”
Trump closed the press conference with a rambling response to a call from a reporter to “finally answer yes or no” to whether he thought Russia had interfered in the 2016 US election.
“I think it could very well have been Russia,” he replied. “I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”