Trump Woos CEOs in Davos Debut While Others Consider Boycott

Updated on
  • President met with May, Netanyahu on first day of forum
  • Trump to address conference in speech scheduled for Friday
Billionaire investor George Soros comments on the Trump administration during a speech at the World Economic Forum.

Follow our full coverage of Davos 2018 here.

It was a scene more reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s own Cabinet meetings than a staid forum of global elites in the Swiss Alps: Trump, at a table of top executives from Europe’s most important companies, holding court as they took turns trying to impress him.

“So are you going to be investing in the U.S.?” Trump asked Bayer AG CEO Werner Baumann as TV cameras rolled during a dinner meeting of European executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When Baumann described a $16 billion investment near St. Louis, the president nodded his approval before turning to the next chief executive.

Trump at dinner in Davos on Jan. 25.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Since arriving Thursday at Davos with a fleet of helicopters that sailed across the Alpine skies, Trump has dominated the mountain gathering with his trademark bravado, spontaneity and camera-grabbing disruption. Within the first few hours, Trump threatened to end U.S. funding for Palestinians, undercut his Treasury secretary’s comments on the dollar and awkwardly made the case that his relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May was “really great.”

Trump’s scheduled address to the conference, on Friday at 2 p.m. in Davos (8 a.m. in New York) -- just four days before his State of the Union address -- will be the highlight of his visit. He’s expected to tell the world’s elite gathered in the resort town that his “America First” agenda will be good for the world, not just the U.S. More money in American middle-class workers’ pockets, he and his allies say, means more demand for the world’s products.

When Trump arrived at Davos on Thursday, he was greeted by a crowd, with reporters jostling and shouting questions. He waved and promised “a very exciting two days.” As Trump walked down the stairs of the convention center, a billionaire CEO paused a private meeting to get a picture of the president.

Reception Theatrics

It remains to be seen how Trump’s message goes over. There were rumors that some of the Davos crowd may boycott Trump’s speech on Friday, or walk out of it. But if he was uncomfortable among the group of global elites who last year collectively bemoaned his election, he didn’t show it. Aside from meeting with the prime ministers of Britain and Israel, Trump at one point strolled through the Congress Center making chit-chat.

At a reception with corporate executives Thursday evening, Trump began with some theatrics: He had a written speech, which he pulled out of his breast pocket but then threw away, saying it was the moment that his staff would get nervous, according to two people who attended the reception.

A European chief executive who attended the reception described it as “weird,” using an expletive. Trump spent the first half of his remarks effusively praising people who had supported his campaign. He spoke at length about gross domestic product, saying that he wanted the U.S. to grow faster and mentioning the growth rate in India -- a developing country. He told the CEOs that they would like what he’ll have to say in his speech on Friday.

At one point he threw his arm around the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. “She used to hate me,” he said, according to a person present. “Now she loves me.”

Billionaire George Soros, a mega-donor to liberal causes who has vehemently opposed Trump, criticized the president’s handling of tensions with North Korea, saying that he’s risking a nuclear war. Soros predicted that the groundswell of opposition Trump has generated will be his downfall.

‘Danger to the World’

“I consider the Trump administration a danger to the world,” Soros said in a speech at Davos. “But I regard it as a purely temporary phenomenon that will disappear in 2020, or even sooner.” He expects a Democratic “landslide” in the 2018 elections.

Trump’s top lieutenants had already caused some excitement before the president arrived. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin mused that a weaker dollar would be good for U.S. trade; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared that the U.S. was already in a trade war; White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert warned Turkey in stark terms not to attack U.S. proxy Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Trump continued to hold the spotlight. During a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Trump threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinians unless they agree to resume peace talks. He bragged that he had taken Jerusalem “off the table” by deciding to move the American embassy there, and said pulling funding for the Palestinians was now “on the table.”

‘False Rumors’

In his meeting with May, Trump said that he wanted to combat some “false rumors,” about their relationship, telling her that he liked her personally “and I think the feeling is mutual.”

In her remarks, the British prime minister emphasized “the special relationship between the U.K. and the United States” and did not mention her feelings about her relationship with Trump.

After the meeting, the White House put out a statement saying that a Trump “working visit” to Britain later this year had been agreed upon, an apparent downgrade from the full state visit both leaders had previously announced.

Trump then said in an interview with CNBC that he would be open to having the U.S. rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal after some renegotiating. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multinational trade agreement last year before Congress had a chance to ratify it.

He also walked back Mnuchin’s comments that a weak dollar was beneficial to the U.S. economy. Those remarks had sparked concerns among investors that America is abandoning its long-standing strong-dollar policy. 

“The dollar is going to get stronger and stronger, and ultimately I want to see a strong dollar,” the president said in the CNBC interview.

While Trump said the treasury secretary’s comments were taken out of context, he added that he, in general, prefers not to discuss currency policy. “It should be what it is,” Trump told CNBC. “It should also be based on the strength of the country.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs, Stephen Morris, Alessandro Speciale, Ying Tian, Erik Schatzker, Javier Blas, and Jan Dahinten

(Updates with Lagarde anecdote in ninth paragraph.)
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