The annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, will be choking with the kind of people who disdain Donald Trump and genuinely regard his presidency as a menace to the planet. In other words: Exactly the kind of party Trump loves to crash.
Lots of very rich people. Lots of media. Lots of fevered what-is-he-really-up-to speculation. At the psychological level, the appeal of Davos for Trump is obvious.
The startling—though in some ways eye-rollingly logical—news on Tuesday that Trump will join all manner of global financial, political and media elites in their famed alpine lair later this month was for months quietly in the making, administration officials said.
WEF organizers had been lobbying for months for high-level administration participation, though they hadn’t been counting on more than a Cabinet secretary or two.
What planners didn’t know was that some West Wing advisers were arguing that Davos would be the perfect venue for Trump to unleash an especially gassy stink bomb aimed at ideas—free trade deals, a more integrated global regulatory system, and all manner of liberal pieties cherished by global elites—he deplores.
One constant of Trump’s rise to power is his desire to command the attention, if not the approval, of the very establishment institutions he claims to be contemptuous of. No surprise that news of Trump’s Davos attendance was first leaked Tuesday morning to the New York Times, which Trump denounces and gives interviews to in seemingly equal measure.
Trump’s controversial closing ad of the 2016 campaign featured video of GOP bogeyman George Soros speaking at a WEF event and included Trump railing against a “global power structure” that was crushing the American worker.
In 2017, days before his inauguration, Trump and Trumpism—with his denunciation of free trade, immigration, and international institutions—dominated the conversation at Davos. But the absence of actual Trumpites—with the exception of a wise-cracking Anthony Scaramucci and a media parade that followed him everywhere—was glaring.
Now Trump will be the first sitting president since Bill Clinton in 2000 to attend.
The gathering at Davos, at the base of some of the most exhilarating ski slopes in Europe, also typically attracts financial titans like Bill Gates as well as liberal celebrity activists like Bono and Angelina Jolie.
Beyond the emotional charge of appearing before many people who regard him as a mysterious new virus—as well as some Wall Street types like Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman who have been more supportive—there seems to be at least a whisper of a strategic rationale for Trump going to Davos.
One administration official said Trump’s appearance will be a “Nikki Haley at the UN” moment, referring to a speech from the U.N. ambassador in which she threatened to pull U.S. funding for the organization over its condemnation of the administration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will be trumpeting the same “America First Agenda” he promotes at home.
Davos will also give Trump an opportunity to gloat to European and Asian competitors about the recently enacted tax bill that lowered the U.S. corporate rate to 21 percent, something that could pressure other governments to consider lowering their own rates.
“Europeans are worried about what Trump and the Republicans have done and they should be,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. “Because if they don’t follow suit they risk losing out to investment in the U.S. I’d expect him to talk about that.”
“I think it’s a brilliant move,” said Larry Kudlow, the conservative economist who could be Trump’s next National Economic Council director. “He can sell his economic growth policy on the world stage and maybe take some whacks at the World Bank or the IMF. Remember, he went to NATO and told them to pony up and they did.”
These quotes suggest a more purposeful strategy behind Trump’s public utterances than is necessarily obvious from his daily Twitter barrage, which often seems dictated by whatever excites him in the daily news cycle.
It is notable, however, that Trump’s Davos appearance—the exact day of his speech is not yet announced—will come just days before his Jan. 30 State of the Union address.
That is one traditional presidential platform that requires even a non-traditional president to do more than simply free-associate: The only way this nationally televised speech can succeed is if he lays out a coherent vision of how he views his presidency and what he plans to achieve in the year ahead. Most recent presidents have conceived of the State of the Union not merely as one night but part of a weeks-long campaign before and after the speech to set the national agenda.
Last year Trump’s first address to Congress—the equivalent of a State of the Union address—was one of the few times in his presidency in which large parts of the Washington political and pundit class gave him credit for articulating a coherent and detailed vision of his policy agenda and the ideas behind it.
Now, on the heels of the successful legislative effort to overhaul the tax code, people will be looking for new answers to one of the overarching questions about this president: It is always obvious the people and policies that Trump is against, but what is he for?
A year ago, adviser Stephen Bannon was seen as one of the intellectual engines of the new administration—touting a nationalistic agenda that is anathema to most at Davos—but now he is exiled.
Still by Trump’s side, however, are lots of people who feel perfectly at home at Davos—and who are expected to join him there, right before the big speech.
An administration official said the Trump delegation to Davos will be large and likely include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and son-in-law Jared Kushner, among others.
Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.
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