DAVOS, Switzerland — President Donald Trump came to Davos and gave a pro-growth, pro-America message exactly the way his economic team wanted him to say it: In calm, coherent words designed to reassure foreign skeptics.
Then, once prepared remarks were over, Trump took a couple questions and gave a pro-growth, pro-America message exactly the way he wanted to say it: In blustery, discursive words that fit precisely the dim view many in the audience already held of the U.S. leader.
Trump’s prepared remarks, which a West Wing aide said were drafted with National Economic Adviser Gary Cohn as the main architect, produced arguably the most favorable reaction from an important overseas audience of this presidency. That’s setting the bar low, since several Trump speeches in international venues were notoriously poorly received.
Here, among global political and business elites at the World Economic Forum, by contrast, many said they were fine with the scripted portion of Trump’s defense of his first year in office. “America first, doesn’t mean America alone,” he said, noting in what sounded slightly like modesty that he expected other leaders similarly to put their own countries first.
He said what most business leaders in the audience believe is true — that the recent Republican-passed tax overhaul was good for both U.S. and global economic growth.
He asserted he was perfectly open to free trade agreements as long as they are fair and reciprocal — a position that rhetorically is the same as what 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton believes.
And these words were all delivered in a polite, almost subdued tone, as if a usually noisy and cocksure president had taken sedatives.
If so, they wore off quickly. As Trump left his lectern and took a seat beside WEF founder Klaus Schwab, a deferential host threw a couple ever-so-gentle questions his way, including an inquiry about how Trump’s background as a businessman influenced his leadership style.
Free from what one imagines was the importuning of his staff — Sir, with this crowd you need to please deliver the speech just like we wrote it — a familiar version of Trump came alive.
He noted that he knew many in the audience preferred his opponent, not mentioning Clinton by name. “To be fair,” he said, if she had been elected what he claimed was $7 trillion in stock market gains since he became presidency would have been the same amount in losses because of Democratic disdain for business and love of needless regulations.
He boasted with no self-effacement of how good he was at building things or turning around failing enterprises — “I’ve always been very successful at making money” — and said when he was in business he always got very positive media coverage. “It wasn’t until I became a politician,” he complained, that “I realized how, nasty, how mean, and how fake the press can be.”
That line drew audible groans from the audience of 1,600 in the WEF Congress Center. Schwab drew some of the same in his introduction when he seemed to agree that Trump had been subject to “misconceptions and biased interpretations.”
After Schwab acknowledged the participation of other Cabinet officials at the WEF, Trump started calling them out from the stage. But it would be impossible to thank them all by name. So he recited first names for Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, then pivoted — before he got to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also in the front row — to a hard-to-follow comment about “my general and my various other generals,” a possible reference to national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others.
“You know, we’re making our military protection for us a little bit better for us, too, so thank you very much,” Trump said. “Does everybody understand that? I think so.”
Many people did not.
The whole show was over in about 30 minutes. A walkout by representatives of developing world countries offended by Trump’s recent reported comments about “shithole countries” did not materialize in any robust or organized way, though a scattering of people did leave in the middle. At the end, however, there was only perfunctory applause, much of that coming from the rows close to stage where Trump staff and special guests were seated. Elsewhere, hands stayed in laps.
This was in sharp contrast to the effusive cheers for French president Emmanuel Macron — who many believe is Europe’s new best hope for promoting the kind of closely connected, progressive-minded world that has typically been extolled at Davos — after his speech on Thursday.
Even so, Trump was undoubtedly being graded on a curve — and comments afterward suggested many people believed he had exceeded their expectations.
“It was OK, it was all right,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, adding, as “a politician I can be sympathetic about his feelings about the media.”
Arancha González, head of the International Trade Center, said that Trump’s signaling that he is open to rejoining negotiations he previously abandoned over the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggest he is worried about the rise of China if the United States isn’t engaged in trade and diplomatic negotiations. “Otherwise he flattered [his audience] while on script and was OK.”
“He was better than expected, but it did not change my impression of him,” said Stefan Doboczky, CEO of Lenzing, an Austria-headquartered textile group: “Being president is about more than the outcome, it is also about how you get there. ”
Michael Granoff, CEO of Pomona Capital, reflected the enthusiasm of many here about Trump’s pro-growth rhetoric: “He did a very good job”
Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now, devoted to promoting human rights through technology, was less impressed: “We had very low expectations. This conference is about disruptive innovation. He missed the mark of the conversation here and is out of touch on how Brand America is sinking.”
Trump seemed to be deliberately playing against type to win over skeptics, not just at Davos but back home. He talked about how the good economy especially has helped Hispanics, African-Americans and women — all part of “a resurgence of a strong and prosperous America.”
In his unscripted remarks, Trump rhapsodized about his dinner Thursday evening with top European industrialists, part of his campaign to encourage investment and send the message that “America is open for business and we are competitive once again.”
He said that although he did not know the executives before, he now believes he has “15 new friends” who will be hiring and investing in the United States.
But Trump might not have appreciated how much his boisterous step-right-up carnival style is different from the more reserved customs of European business.
At the dinner, Trump was “as you would expect him to be, as charming as he was demanding,” an executive briefed by one participant said, adding that “you were lucky if you weren’t invited,” as those who were felt the pressure, and gave in to it, to praise American greatness.
Diners were surprised to find the meeting televised by CNBC, according to the executive, who said some felt “instrumentalized.”
“Probably I can think of no other time where you can have executives of this stature,” Trump said to open the dinner, praising his guests for doing “great jobs” and being fantastic overall. Then it was their turn to flatter the host.
Joe Kaeser, CEO of German industry giant Siemens, which employs 56.000 staff in the US, took the floor first. “Congratulations on your tax reform,” Kaeser said. “We’ve been investing quite a lot in your country. And since you have been successful with the tax reform, we decided to develop the next generation of gas turbines in the United States.”
“That’s a great thing,” said Trump, though it turns out Kaeser slightly overstated the case: Siemens had announced that decision in the fall, before the tax reform, and will test, or “validate” the turbines in Charlotte, North Carolina, rather than develop them there, German newspaper Die Welt reports.
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