“No fire and no fury”: A listless Trump leaves Davos shrugging

“America first, but not alone.”
“America first, but not alone.”
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Davos, Switzerland

In a radical departure from his fiery campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump delivered a new type of “America First” speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos today (Jan. 26), to a packed room of CEOs and world leaders.

Trump championed his economic programs, indicated he would consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and thanked the men and women who work to make a “better world for everyone.”

Since he took office a year ago, Trump has catered primarily to his right-wing, nationalistic base, quitting TPP negotiations in his first week, threatening to cancel NAFTA, yanking the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, and alienating top trading partners with Twitter rages and often fact-free insults.

In Davos he made an abrupt turnabout, urging the assembled elite to come to the US to hire and invest.

“At least he wasn’t disturbing,” said one German CEO afterwards. “There was no fire and no fury.”

“There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to grow in the United States,” Trump told the crowd. “America is open for business and we are competitive once again.”

Trump said he would always put “America First,” just as other world leaders should prioritize their own countries, adding: “‘America First’ does not mean America alone. When the United States grows, so does the world.”

That went over well with a European diplomat: “I am surprisingly positive. I never thought I would say that.”

The typical pitch of a world leader at Davos is to set out their country’s case for a global leadership role, but Trump’s remarks were overwhelming focused on encouraging inbound investment, instead of any outward-looking initiatives beyond combating terrorism. “Today I’m inviting you to become a part of this incredible future we are building together,” he said. “We look forward to seeing you in America.”

Trump took the stage in front of a military band that played the Swiss anthem, slowly striding onto stage with WEF president Klaus Schwab, wearing his trademark wide red tie and loose dark suit. The two stood silently while the band played, then walked together toward the podium, until Schwab indicated Trump should turn around and walk back to a chair.

When it was time for him to speak, Trump mostly read the 20-minute speech in a flat monotone. The night before, White House economic advisor Gary Cohn, a long-time investment banker, said that he wrote the address. It was, in essence, Goldman Sachs with “America First” characteristics.

Trump saved his toughest talk for the media: “How nasty, how mean, how vicious, and how fake the press can be,” he said, to hisses from the audience. He also took a thinly veiled shot at China. “We support free trade but it needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal,” Trump said, pledging not to turn a blind eye to countries that engage in “massive intellectual property theft, industrial subsidies, and pervasive state-led economic planning.”

The US is prepared to negotiate “mutually beneficial” agreements he said. “This will include the countries in TPP, which are very important. We would consider negotiating with the rest individually or perhaps as a group, if it was in the interest of all. “

His presence at the meeting of globalists Trump pilloried during his 2016 campaign is part of a push to soften the harder aspects of his “America First” policies. Earlier in the week, Trump’s top economic and trade advisors suggested a more nuanced approach, based on re-negotiating existing global-trade norms, rather than tearing them all up. Trump dined with European CEOs last night, calling them “15 new friends,” and met with other world leaders.

“Better than I expected,” said Ishmael Sunga, a South African union leader outside the Congress Hall. Instead of “bashing things up,” Trump tailored his message to the crowd, he said. It was the performance of a “mark-to-market president,” said a financier who was in the crowd. “It was the most scripted speech he’s ever given,” remarked another delegate.

The crowd at Davos responded to his speech with polite applause. A smattering of people sitting with White House officials in the front gave him a standing ovation.