Davos jaunt proves a useful distraction for Donald Trump
The earnest hand-wringing about the state of global affairs in the Swiss resort of Davos this week did not seem like a natural forum for Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric.
But the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of leaders and top executives proved a useful platform for the US president to herald his nation’s economic performance, distracting attention from the impeachment proceedings happening back home.
On Tuesday, news announcers who had been discussing the Ukraine scandal that led to the impeachment hearings cut to images of Mr Trump’s presidential helicopter silhouetted against the snow-capped Swiss Alps as he flew in to address the forum.
And hours before the start of the third impeachment trial of an American president since the founding of the republic, Mr Trump was busy telling world leaders and chief executives that the US was “winning again like never before”.
“Davos Man” — the stereotypical elite attendee who frets about populism, climate change and the fraying of multilateralism — has become a shorthand in recent years for all that Mr Trump is not. But that did not stop delegates from gossipping about the secret service agents who suddenly filled the Intercontinental hotel.
Hedge fund managers swapped rumours that Mr Trump had flown in a large stock of Californian wine for the dinner to which he invited international chief executives on Tuesday night, perhaps to thumb his nose at Europeans fearful of threatened tariffs on their own wine imports to the US.
The speculation was just one example of how Mr Trump came to dominate the debate in Davos over the week, and the opening of his impeachment trial in Washington was rarely mentioned.
Executives in Davos said that nobody had mentioned the proceedings on Capitol Hill in any of their meetings. Their focus, instead, was on the message at the core of Mr Trump’s speech to the forum: that he had turned the US economy into a “roaring geyser of opportunity”.
Several attendees questioned Mr Trump’s selective marshalling of only the most flattering economic facts, with the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz handing out sheets of paper that rebutted the president’s speech and proffered a wealth of more damaging statistics.
But most Davos attendees agreed with Mr Trump’s argument that the US has become the essential engine of global growth, and they support the corporate tax cuts and rollback of regulations that he touted in his speech.
Mr Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation were “working” to expand the economy, one technology chief executive told the Financial Times.
Advisers to other senior executives who met Mr Trump said they appreciated comments he and his daughter Ivanka made in Davos about the need to invest in retraining workers for the age of artificial intelligence.
Members of the World Economic Forum’s international business council met Mr Trump at a reception after he left the stage; the event focused on the first stage trade agreement Mr Trump had reached with China days before flying to Switzerland.
The reception “was a victory lap on China”, said Julie Sweet, Accenture chief executive. “A lot of CEOs are very happy about the China deal.”
Mr Trump worked the room confidently, two other attendees said, congratulating some chief executives on their high share prices and talking in vague terms to others about business-friendly policies for skilled immigration.
He carried his economic message on to a dinner with overseas chief executives, telling a group that included Kenichiro Yoshida of Sony and Ben van Beurden of Royal Dutch Shell they were the “greatest businessmen in the world”. The hobnobbing came at the very moment John Roberts, the Supreme Court chief justice, opened Mr Trump’s Senate trial.
But Mr Trump was relatively muted about the most consequential event of his presidency, telling reporters in Davos it was a “hoax”.
Even after Adam Schiff, the California Democratic congressman who leads the prosecution team, delivered his opening remarks, Mr Trump refrained from hurling his usual insults at the lawmaker.
His only rebuttal to the proceedings that will determine whether he is convicted and removed from office for abusing his power and obstructing Congress was a single tweet: “READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!”
Mr Trump was referring to notes of his July 25 2019 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked the investigation that led to his impeachment in the House of Representatives.
In Washington, Democrats hope the impeachment proceedings will further their political case when Mr Trump tries to win re-election in November. But in Davos there was more support for the opposite view, on which Mr Trump’s re-election campaign team is betting: that the push to oust him will energise his voter base and deliver the kind of turnout that will help him win the White House for another four years.
While many observers in Washington are paying close attention to the Democratic presidential race, which kicks off in Iowa on February 3, there was much less discussion about US politics in the Swiss resort. For most of the Davos crowd, the 10 months until the election are a lifetime away.
“The US election is a two-year cycle,” said Ms Sweet. “It’s way too early for companies to be completely focused on it.”