Trump lands in Davos, abroad again while Russia looms at home

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

DAVOS — High in the Swiss Alps, President Donald Trump plans to crow this week that his protectionist policies have helped drive a resurgent American economy. His message will resonate far beyond the snow-blanketed valleys below.

Business and political leaders the world over are anxiously awaiting what Trump will say to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual gathering of movers and shakers which this year features the first visit by a US president in almost two decades.

Davos is an unlikely venue for Trump’s heralding of an “America First” agenda. The event has become a byword for the brand of high-minded globalism that Trump angrily denounced as a candidate and has found little place in his White House.

In some ways, Trump’s decision to become the first American president to visit Davos since Bill Clinton did in 2000 was a predictable outcome for a man who, for decades, has sought acceptance by the rarified world of the ultra-rich. Now, he arrives at the annual party more powerful than them, eager to take a victory lap around those who excluded him for years.

Yet for the third time, it’s a foreign trip that begins under the shadow of developments in the Russia investigation and special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump left for Saudi Arabia in May just as Mueller was appointed, departed for Asia in November as the first criminal charges in the probe were filed, and leaves this week amid new revelations of interviews with his attorney general and the FBI director he fired.

Brief appearance

Trump arrived in Switzerland on Thursday morning and plans to spend only one night. His brief appearance at the Davos forum has already caused agitation and eye-rolling among some of the gathering’s regular attendees, who wonder whether he’ll lambast or even shame them when he takes the stage on Friday morning. Trump’s advisers say he’ll link his governing agenda to the record markets and low unemployment currently fueling American growth.

“The President’s appearance is there to sell his accomplishments, to remind the world that we are open for business, that we’re a competitive country, that we have made America very competitive, and that everyone should understand what he has accomplished in his first year, and what we’re going to continue to accomplish in the next three remaining years,” said Gary Cohn, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council.

Cohn, along with at least 15 other top-ranking administration officials or Cabinet secretaries, has traveled to Switzerland with Trump. First lady Melania Trump was originally scheduled to join her husband, but withdrew this week citing “scheduling and logistical issues.” The announcement came as the White House battled back accusations that Trump engaged in extramarital sex with a porn star.

Even without the first lady, however, it’s a high-voltage American presence for the four-day summit here, one that officials say is meant to solicit investment in the United States.

The American contingent has already prompted some waves of consternation. The leader of the delegation, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, caused a stir on Wednesday when he declared a weaker US dollar would be good for the country, breaking with a long tradition of government officials endorsing a stronger dollar. The value of the currency promptly fell to a three-year low.

Team Trump talks taxes, trade and the dollar in Davos

The US officials join a crowd that includes Microsoft founder Bill Gates, actress Cate Blanchett and Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, among the highest-profile participants of this year’s meetings, along with a roster of heads of state and high-ranking government officials.

That includes UK Prime Minister Theresa May, with whom Trump will meet on Thursday after engaging in a public spat over anti-Muslim videos created by a far-right British group. He’ll also sit for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the current chairman of the African Union. Several African nations took formal steps to register their fury after Trump used vulgar language to describe their countries during a meeting about immigration earlier this month.

It’s that type of disregard for the norms of politics and diplomacy that most separates Trump from the Davos crowd. But those who know him say Trump has always found ways to adapt to his surroundings.

“He has a duality in his personality. He wants to be part of the world system and he wants to protect American workers,” said Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived communications director who has been a longtime fixture at Davos.

Contradiction

Trump’s appearance here also underscores a contradiction: some of his biggest accomplishments from his first year in office — tax cuts for corporations and a roaring stock market — are a far cry from the populist pledges he delivered from the campaign trail. While now exiled from Trump’s orbit, his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, bemoaned Davos and all it stood for.

“The working men and women in the world … are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the ‘party of Davos,’ ” Bannon said in 2014.

Participants at Davos have historically espoused the benefits of free trade and global engagement. At the same time, they’ve taken pains — however clumsy — to acknowledge that which requires the assistance of the international community, like refugees and the environment. The theme for the summit this year: “Creating a shared future in a fractured world.”

Trump, meanwhile, has largely rejected both an internationalist approach and a benevolent view of American power, leading to a heightened sense of anticipation for his address Friday.

“I think Davos has always grappled with the animal spirit of business and the idea of trying to build a shared future,” Robin Niblett, the director of London-based Chatham House, told CNN on Wednesday. “Business is driven by some of the animal instincts that Trump represents, but he’s not a believer in the multilateralism that’s meant to be packaged around it.”

Never invited here during his tenure as New York’s most famous real estate developer, Trump will engage in a “vindication tour,” one person familiar with his plans said. Among a crowd who welcomed the tax cuts he signed for corporations and wealthy individuals — if almost nothing else of his agenda — he’ll insist that the American economy has never seemed stronger, even as America’s global standing has come into question.

“He’s a businessman but he’s not your normal type of American businessman,” Niblett said. “Most of the leaders here are from multinational companies that understand the need to be diplomatic to work in multiple different diverse constituencies. He’s not somebody who’s gone through that experience.”

When Trump’s advisers were pitching a visit to Davos as a way to trumpet the US economy, some maintained that he’d have an uncrowded stage to make his pronouncements, unlike other global summits like the G7 or G20 meetings. But after Trump announced his attendance, a flurry of other leaders submitted their RSVPs, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has at last formed a governing coalition after months of uncertainty.

Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel will provide a counterpoint to Trump’s protectionist ideas. Both will serve as reminders that however disruptive Trump’s election appeared, the nationalist wave it appeared to portend did not fully materialize. After all, Macron and Merkel beat back right-wing candidates to secure election last year.

Along with leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Merkel and Macron have sought to rally fellow world leaders behind a collective approach to solving global quandaries, even as Trump has withdrawn, or threatened to withdraw, the US from a series of trade agreements and diplomatic accords.

In addresses here this week, all three warned against an inward turn. Trudeau announced the finalization of a US-free Trans-Pacific Partnership, nearly a year after Trump withdrew from the trade pact. Merkel cautioned against a rise in “national egoism” and warned against forgetting lessons learned during World War II. And Macron called for a new 10-year global framework based on cooperation and warned against a “race to bottom” in lowering taxes.