, Davos, Switzerland, Jan 26 – President Donald Trump was set Friday to play the role of America’s salesman-in-chief Friday in a speech promoting the rebounding US economy in front of the global elite in Davos, but found himself unable to escape the shadow of scandal at home and abroad.
“America is open for business again, in the sense that there’s been no better time to build, to invest, to hire in the United States,” a senior US administration official told reporters in a briefing before the speech at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps.
At the same time, Trump was expected to warn US trading partners that they must play fair or risk reprisals, at the end of a week that saw his administration target China and South Korea with new tariffs and by turmoil in currency markets caused by his Treasury secretary apparently tolerating a weaker dollar.
Trump has reconciled the Davos-bashing that characterised his unorthodox march to the White House with the need to sell America to the world, and the speech gives him the opportunity to try to shift the dial away from the latest eruption of unfavourable headlines back home.
The president awoke to a bombshell New York Times story that he had ordered the firing of Russia investigation special prosecutor Robert Mueller last year, but had to back off when the White House counsel threatened to resign.
“Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories,” Trump told reporters as he arrived at the forum.
The president did use a British television interview recorded in Davos to strike a rare note of contrition on another controversy.
After last year retweeting a British far-right group’s videos apparently showing Islamist violence, Trump said in the interview broadcast Friday: “If you’re telling me they’re horrible racist people, I would certainly apologise if you’d like me to do that.”
The charge that Trump is racist earned new traction this month with his reported slur against “shithole” countries in Africa.
Before his speech in Davos, he held talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who currently chairs the African Union. Trump asked Kagame to pass on his “warmest regards” to other regional leaders at an AU summit this weekend.
But some African business leaders say they are planning to boycott Trump’s closing speech in Davos. Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima noted that some Africans are talking even of walking out of the hall.
“I will not attend the speech. I’m busy,” the Ugandan told AFP.
“Trump is just one of a kind, a member of the elite who has chosen to serve the interests of a few at the top, at the expense of ordinary people,” she added.
Trump’s presence in Switzerland has been dogged by protests and stunts by activists. But the president said there was “a tremendous crowd” to meet him at the summit — raising memories of the controversy a year ago when he claimed record numbers had attended his presidential inauguration in the face of all evidence.
“It’s a crowd like they’ve never had before at Davos,” said Trump, who has never before attended the forum.
– ‘Fair’ trade –
In Davos Trump faces an audience of politicians, bankers and titans of industry many of whom view him and his more nationalistic policies with concern bordering on contempt.
The contempt was returned in spades by Trump during his 2016 election campaign, when he assailed Wall Street and the Davos elite as the enemy of America’s working class at a time of declining wages and job security nearly a decade on from a global financial crisis.
Trump will stress in his speech that he wants free trade as long as it is “fair and reciprocal”, and will dwell on “lifting up the forgotten men and women” left behind by globalisation, the senior official said.
Trump will also declare that he expects other countries to enforce laws and trade agreements, the official said, after Washington’s new tariffs this week and as it renegotiates the NAFTA pact with Canada and Mexico.
“The United States will no longer tolerate things like the theft of intellectual property, forced technology transfers, industrial subsidies,” the official said.
– Low expectations –
A year ago, the Davos spotlight was claimed by China’s communist leader Xi Jinping, who took up the torch of global trade to the delight of the well-heeled audience then anxious about Trump’s inauguration.
The Davos elite are keen now to see which version of Trump will speak Friday afternoon — the business-friendly tycoon or the leader who berated the rest of the world at the UN General Assembly last September.
Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at Washington’s Center for a New American Security, said French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “stole the show” at Davos already, after the European leaders used separate speeches on Wednesday to push back hard against the Trump manifesto.