Memo: Trump faces challenges in Davos

Memo: Trump faces challenges in Davos
© Getty

President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE was set to jet off for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday evening. But his attendance at the storied gathering of the global elite sits incongruously with the image he has sought to paint for himself.

As a candidate first, and then as a president, Trump said he was the standard-bearer of “the forgotten men and women of our country,” as he put it in his inaugural address. 

In policy terms, he seems to share little common ground with the globalization-friendly Davos crowd. He has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and dismissed the Paris climate accord. More generally, he advocates an “America First” economic policy, a phrase redolent of protectionism.

That leaves some of the president’s more populist allies perplexed by the decision to go to Davos. 


“There is no political constituency that is pro-Davos,” said one Republican with ties to the administration who requested anonymity to talk candidly. “He won the election by framing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement MORE as the candidate of the Davos elite.”

Senior administration officials have been at pains to try and reconcile Trump’s political persona and his attendance at the conference, which brings together A-list names from the worlds of politics, media and business. No American president has attended the gathering since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFor families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE in 2000. 

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, appeared at the regular White House media briefing on Tuesday to make the case for the Davos trip. 

“We’re going to the World Economic Forum to share President Trump’s economic story and to tell the world that America is open for business,” he said. “We want the world to invest in America and to create jobs for hardworking Americans.”

Trump himself, speaking at a gathering of mayors on Wednesday, said, “I’m going to Davos right now to tell people to invest in the United States.”

Some Trump allies take him at his word and profess no real concern about the optics of him attending the conference.

“I think it’s fine. I don’t think it’s crucial. But I think it’s a victory lap on his economic policies,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It’s important for leaders to know that his programs are working.”

The extent to which the Davos elite will embrace Trump remains to be seen, however.

French President Emmanuel Macron drew laughter at the forum on Wednesday with a joke widely interpreted as a jab at Trump.

“Obviously you don't invite anyone skeptical about global warming this year,” Macron said. 

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates criticized Trump’s “America First” mindset while speaking to Bloomberg News from Davos on Wednesday. Gates claimed that the approach risked diminishing U.S. influence in Africa, leaving the field open to competitors such as China.

Trump will meet with British Prime Minister Teresa May during the summit. The two have clashed in the past, most notably when Trump retweeted messages from a far-right British politician in November. 

Trump will also sit down with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the chairman of the African Union. That meeting, too, could be roiled with tension, given Trump’s reported complaint about “shithole countries” — a designation he apparently applied to some African nations, among others — during a recent White House meeting on immigration. 

As if all that were not enough, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that his country and 10 other nations are moving forward with a Pacific Rim trade agreement and hope to sign the pact by March. Trudeau told the forum that his government was “working very hard to make sure that our neighbor to the south recognizes how good NAFTA is,” despite Trump’s statements to the contrary. 

Asked at Tuesday’s briefing whether the U.S. was being left behind, Cohn demurred. 

“Look, the U.S. is pulling back from nothing. The U.S. is involved,” he insisted.  

At another point, he added, “America First is not America Alone. … When we grow, the world grows; when the world grows, we grow. We’re part of it, and we’re part of a world economy. And the president believes that.”

There are also questions about what demeanor Trump himself will adopt at the forum. 

For all his combativeness, the president generally prefers to avoid in-person confrontation. Supporters and critics alike also note the curious duality in a president who often seems to seek the approval of the very elites that he lambastes.

Some conservatives who have long been skeptical of Trump see his attendance at Davos as further proof that much of his populist rhetoric was shallow. 

Referring to media coverage of the president’s decision to make the trip, Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host who endorsed Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump's Texas endorsement boosts a scandal-plagued incumbent while imperiling a political dynasty Trio of Senate Republicans urges Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia MORE (R-Texas) in the 2016 presidential race, said, “Let’s just remove the name and make it, ‘Son of a millionaire who became a billionaire is going to hang out with other global elites.’ Would that be a story? It’s only a story because of his political posturing and that’s all that was — posturing.”

Still, even the Republican strategist who expressed concern that Trump was going against his political brand by attending Davos took some comfort from the fact that he did not expect the president to make any significant policy shifts.

“I don’t expect he is going to back down from any of his policies,” the source said, “He is not going to go there and start talking about how great NAFTA and TPP are. He is not going to do a 180 on any of his policies.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.