Trump's Davos debut woos CEOs while others consider boycott

US President Donald Trump at a working dinner with European business leaders during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan 25, 2018.
US President Donald Trump at a working dinner with European business leaders during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan 25, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

DAVOS, Switzerland (BLOOMBERG) - 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 US?" 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 US$16 billion (S$21 billion) investment near St Louis, the president nodded his approval before turning to the next chief executive.

Since arriving on Thursday (Jan 25) 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 US 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 pm in Davos (9pm Friday in Singapore) - 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 US. 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 centre, 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 rumours that some of the Davos crowd might 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 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 on 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. He went on to predict that the American economy would grow by 6 per cent, one of the people said.

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 US 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.

Billionaire George Soros, a mega-donor to liberal causes who has vehemently opposed Trump, criticised 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.

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 US trade; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared that the US was already in a trade war; White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert warned Turkey in stark terms not to attack US 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 RUMOURS'

In his meeting with May, Trump said that he wanted to combat some "false rumours", about their relationship, telling her that he liked her personally "and I think the feeling is mutual". In her remarks, the British prime minister emphasised "the special relationship between the UK 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 US rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal after some renegotiating. Trump pulled the US out of the multinational trade agreement last year before Congress had a chance to ratify it.

He also walked back on 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."