President Trump will address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month, the White House said Tuesday, a startling decision that will bring the unorthodox U.S. leader face to face with global elites who have been Trump's fierce critics and frequent foils.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will use the forum to talk about his “America First” worldview. Trump has described the approach as the sensible prioritizing of American interests over those of other nations. His critics inside the United States and abroad call it a retreat from an American global leadership based on democratic principles.
“He welcomes the opportunity to go there and advance his America First agenda with world leaders,” Sanders told reporters.
She said details of the president's attendance at the Jan. 23-to-26 gathering are being worked out, and it is not yet clear whether he will hold separate meetings with world leaders there. He does not expect to visit any other countries apart from Switzerland, Sanders said.
The surprise engagement, first reported by the New York Times, will place Trump among many of the world's richest and most influential leaders in government, business and foreign policy.
Trump would be the first U.S. leader since President Bill Clinton to attend the Davos meeting. Its picturesque location in the Swiss Alps has long attracted some of the world’s wealthiest financiers, but it is also seen as a posh opportunity for leaders to interact with the world’s economic elite.
Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Davos meeting in 2017, a first for a Chinese leader. Xi's speech was praised as statesmanlike and a counterpoint to Trump's criticism of international bodies and collective decision-making. Sanders said Xi's attendance last year was not a factor in Trump's decision to attend now.
The Davos announcement comes as Trump faces crucial decisions about where to take his economic agenda in the second year of his presidency. The $1.5 trillion tax overhaul package Congress passed last month has just gone into effect, something that he has promised will lead to an expansion of the U.S. economy and higher wages. But he is also mulling a number of controversial trade decisions, including whether to rework or withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, a potential move that has many world leaders on edge.
As an outsider presidential candidate in 2016, Trump railed about the erosion of U.S. jobs and what he called the trade giveaways that previous presidents had negotiated. Globalization was the enemy of American economic primacy, Trump argued, and the “rigged economy” that benefited those who needed the help the least was a symptom.
He directly blamed “powerful corporations, media elites and political dynasties.”
“I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who've led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another,” Trump said in a July 2016 economic speech in Pittsburgh.
Organizers of the glittery gathering in a Swiss mountain town say it is “committed to improving the state of the world.”
This year's theme is “creating a shared future in a fractured world.”
“The global context has changed dramatically: Geostrategic fissures have re-emerged on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic and social consequences,” the World Economic Forum website says in announcing this year's meeting. “Realpolitik is no longer just a relic of the Cold War. Economic prosperity and social cohesion are not one and the same. The global commons cannot protect or heal itself.”
“Politically, new and divisive narratives are transforming governance,” it says, in a possible reference to the populist-influenced political shifts that helped propel Trump to victory in the 2016 presidential election and that are also coursing through European politics.
“Economically, policies are being formulated to preserve the benefits of global integration while limiting shared obligations such as sustainable development, inclusive growth and managing the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the statement continues. “Socially, citizens yearn for responsive leadership; yet, a collective purpose remains elusive despite ever-expanding social networks. All the while, the social contract between states and their citizens continues to erode.”
The Davos trip follows Trump's messy falling-out with his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who often ridiculed such international gatherings. Instead, Trump has shown a tendency in recent months to follow the advice of market-focused friends and advisers. This can be seen in last-minute changes he agreed to in the new tax law, which reduced taxes for the wealthy more than many were expecting.
It remains unclear whether Trump will show flashes of populism ahead of the midterm elections as he decides how to follow through on trade threats. Those decisions, which could affect the global flow of steel and aluminum, could come within weeks.
Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn was a frequent Davos attendee when he was a Wall Street banker. He skipped the gathering last year. Sanders said the delegation accompanying Trump is still a work in progress, but that some administration figures would be at the gathering for longer than Trump will stay. Cohn is likely to be among them.
“What the heck is Trump doing at Davos?” said MIT economist David Autor, who has been to Davos many times and is on several panels this year discussing his work on the impact of robots and trade on jobs. “Trump made fun of Davos. This is exactly the crowd he doesn’t want to talk to.”
Autor said he hopes Trump gets the message from business and global leaders at Davos that the more America withdraws from the world and pursues “America first” policies, “the vacuum that will be created will be filled by China.”
Heather Long contributed to this report.