Trump will dominate Davos as no US leader has before

Provocateur-in-chief practised at irking elites who celebrate global order

US president Donald Trump says he would beat media mogul Oprah Winfrey in a presidential contest, but he does not think the actor and talk show host will run. Video: Reuters

US president Donald Trump will dominate the Davos forum as no US leader has before: a provocateur-in-chief practiced at irking the elites who'll gather later this month to celebrate the global order he seems eager to tear down.

Previous US officials came to the World Economic Forum to defend international norms, but Trump's bellicose tweets, protectionist threats and disdain for international agreements promise to make his presence disruptive and all-consuming.

Trump’s “America First” agenda will receive an icy reception among world financial and economic titans even as he becomes the most closely watched figure at the Alpine ski resort in Switzerland, said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group.

“Everything that Trump has done on a global stage is kind of anathema to what WEF stands for,” Bremmer said in an interview. “There’s no question that the speech will not be well received in terms of substance.”


Trump will attend the event shortly after marking the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. Trump’s first year in office has featured repudiation of a Pacific Rim trade deal and the Paris Climate accord, threats to end the Nafta free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, cavalier tweets about nuclear buttons and calls for new trade sanctions against China and moves to undermine the Iran nuclear deal.

Many of those actions have spurred recrimination from international political and corporate leaders, even as the global economy has continued to improve and American stock markets have reached new highs.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump will use the forum to make the case for his policies to the global leaders.

“The president welcomes opportunities to advance his America First agenda with world leaders,” Sanders said Tuesday in a statement. “At this year’s World Economic Forum, the president looks forward to promoting his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries, and American workers.”

Trump would be the first sitting American president to attend the meeting of bankers, corporate chiefs, academics and investors since Bill Clinton in January 2000.

Trump and his top aides previously avoided Davos, a redoubt of globalist, free-trade thinking starkly at odds with Trump’s rhetoric about representing “the forgotten man and woman.” It is a regular stomping ground for Trump nemeses such as international investor George Soros.

In a presentation at the Vatican in 2014, Steve Bannon, who served as Trump's chief strategist before later falling out with the president, said the working people of the world were "tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos."

Trump’s decision to go to Davos took even some senior aides by surprise. Some of them weren’t aware of his travel plans until Monday.

Anxiety over Trump’s agenda dominated conversation at the World Economic Forum last year shortly before the inauguration. The incoming administration did not send any official representatives. An aide at the time said participating in the high-powered annual meeting would betray the president-elect’s populist movement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping used the forum in 2017 for a global call to reject trade wars and protectionism in a rebuttal to Trump.

The lone attendee from Trump’s coterie of advisers last year was hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, who later served briefly as Trump’s communications director.

Scaramucci said Tuesday that Trump’s base would not criticise his decision to go to the forum.

“It foils a lot of his detractors that don’t completely understand him because he’s a hybrid between being a globalist and wanting to put American workers and American families first,” Scaramucci said.

“His base supports him wholly and trusts his judgment on where he should go and what he should do.”

Last year’s conference came the same week as Trump’s inauguration and delegates at the time predicted Trump would prove a more pragmatic leader than he suggested on the campaign trail or on Twitter. A year before that, the consensus had been that he would not win the presidency.

Some world leaders are looking forward to an opportunity to hear from Trump directly, just weeks after the president described himself as “a very stable genius” to contradict assertions in a best-selling book that describe him as unhinged and unintelligent.

"Davos is first a place where many people meet to discuss about important subjects that matter for countries and for people," said Carlos Ghosn, the chairman of automakers Renault SA, Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors.

“The more people participate - particularly people with a high power level - the more interesting it is, the more it gives meaning to Davos. So I welcome this opportunity to hear from the president.”

One bank executive said the president’s attendance would make the gathering more entertaining, while bemoaning the logistical headaches that Trump’s large entourage and tighter-than-normal security will cause.

Klaus Schwab, the founder of the forum, said in a statement that Trump would offer a “direct perspective” on the US’s priorities and that the president would be accompanied by key Cabinet ministers and US lawmakers.

The theme for this year’s conference is: “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

In an interview on Monday before the Davos announcement, Harvard University professor Ken Rogoff identified Trump as a risk to the economic expansion.

“Naming any list of global risks without naming President Trump would mean the list wasn’t complete. There’s a randomness element that’s hard to quantify. There’s policy uncertainty,” said Rogoff, who is scheduled to be a panellist at Davos this year.

At the same time, the bankers and company chieftains present in Switzerland will likely welcome the corporate tax cut Trump recently delivered as well as the surging stock market he likes to take credit for.

While Trump has previously delivered fairly standard speeches before global bodies, many world leaders will look past the written remarks for Trump’s unscripted thoughts.

“His actual speeches don’t make news,” Bremmer said. “His tweets do.” -Bloomberg