What Will Donald Trump Find in Davos?

No U.S. president has attended the Alpine confab in almost two decades. Trump’s reception could be as chilly as the weather.
Carlos Ghosn Says Trump Is Welcome at Davos

The White House stunned the political and business worlds yesterday by announcing that President Donald Trump will attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland later this month—the first time an American president has done so since Bill Clinton, in 2000. For Trump, who was elected on a promise to wrest control of policymaking from precisely the kind of “elites” who gather in the Alpine village, it’s a surprising decision to say the least. Here’s a rundown of some of the big questions surrounding his trip:

Who else will be there?

The WEF hasn’t yet released the guest list, but if past years are any guide the event will attract a who’s-who of business, finance, and policymaking. Past regulars include the likes of JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma, and IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the APEC summit in 2017.
Photographer: Jorge Silva/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was supposed to be this year’s star attraction (until the Trump announcement), and will likely pitch his country as an investment destination that can compete with China, whose President Xi Jinping headlined the 2017 summit.

Still unknown: whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the trip. If he does and runs into Trump, there could be some memorable moments in the hallways of the sprawling convention center.

What sort of reception will Trump receive?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Trump’s anti-trade and immigration policies are unpopular among the bulk of the Davos set, who tend to share an easy cosmopolitanism whatever their individual political orientations. On the other, the single unifying characteristic of WEF attendees is wealth, and with stock prices reaching record highs, many will be feeling better than usual about their personal prospects. That’s doubly true for those who will benefit from the tax legislation that Trump signed in December, which provides ample new opportunities for the 0.01 percent to shelter their income.

And then there’s the simple issue of power. Unpopular and embattled though he may be, Trump is still the leader of the world’s most important economic and military player, and many businesspeople have a lot to lose by getting on his bad side. 

What does this mean for the WEF?

Having Trump fly in is unquestionably a coup for the Geneva-based organization that runs the forum. Over its four-decade history, the WEF and its founder, Klaus Schwab, have repeatedly fended off allegations that the event is an irrelevant talking shop. Last year’s forum, which coincided with Trump’s inauguration, felt particularly removed from global politics: Everyone’s attention was riveted by developments in Washington, where the real decisions were being made.

But while Trump’s attendance brings the spotlight, it also upends a year of work by the staffers who organize the jam-packed schedule of panels, speeches, and workshops for attendees, featuring everyone from Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg to celebrities like Bono and Matt Damon. It also could bring back the protesters who’ve largely given the event a pass in recent years. Whatever Trump’s specific itinerary, it’s a near-certainty his presence will overshadow the program.

Why don’t U.S. presidents attend more often?

The answer boils down to optics and logistics. Few American presidents are eager to be seen hobnobbing with billionaires and celebrities in a glamorous stretch of Switzerland, which is a big part of why both George W. Bush and Barack Obama opted to send subordinates.

The practicalities are also daunting. Davos is located in a narrow valley about two hours’ drive from the nearest major airport, in Zurich. Its hotels, roads, and restaurants already struggle to cope with the regular influx of WEF delegates, and it’s not clear how the sprawling entourage that accompanies an American president would be accommodated.

For this reason, it’s a good bet that Trump will show up only briefly, helicoptering in from Zurich for a speech and a few meetings, and perhaps not even staying overnight. And it’s not a town that features many of his preferred amenities. The nearest McDonald’s, where Trump is a habitual customer, is several valleys away, and the Alpine golf courses are covered in snow.  

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