DAVOS, Switzerland — President Trump invited the world to share in resurgent U.S. economic success for which he took credit Friday, wrapping his “America first” message of sovereignty in a salesman’s offer to other nations and businesses.
“I’m here to deliver a simple message: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States,” Trump said in a much-anticipated address to global business and political leaders. “America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.”
Trump’s keynote address to the World Economic Forum was a gentler delivery of his trademark economic populism and the trade protectionism on which he campaigned. His invitation for mutual economic advancement was an implicit answer to criticism that he is leading a retreat from U.S. global leadership.
“I believe in America. As president of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like the leaders of other countries should put their countries first. But America first does not mean America alone,” Trump said.
Trump received, and reveled in, a mostly warm reception from the CEOs and international finance titans at Davos, many of whom praised the tax-cut package that Trump shepherded through Congress last month. The package included a large reduction in the U.S. corporate tax rate.
The U.S. leader’s business-centered approach has played well here, despite his past contempt for “globalism,” which he has blamed for an exodus of U.S. jobs.
“A lot of people had high anxiety about Trump. That level of anxiety has fallen somewhat,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist of IHS Markit.
Even business leaders who have been vocal critics of Trump in the past, such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, softened their tone in Davos.
“I thought it was a speech that very well represented the American policies he’s put into place and his position, and it encouraged the discussions to continue,” said Benioff, who backed Trump opponent Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump remains broadly unpopular in Europe, where his proposed travel ban on some Muslim-majority nations has been called racist and reactionary. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who met with Trump here Thursday, called his retweets of anti-Muslim videos last year “wrong,” an unusual rebuke from a close ally.
But there were few signs of protest at the speech Friday. At least two people walked out.
Ahead of the speech, Trump met with Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda and the new leader of the African Union. In a brief appearance before reporters, neither leader mentioned Trump’s reported vulgarity about African nations, uttered during a White House meeting on immigration this month. The African Union has called on Trump to apologize.
In his public meetings here, Trump has dropped his once-frequent references to the rest of the world “laughing at” the United States while stealing its jobs. He insisted Friday that trade relationships must be fair and what he calls “reciprocal,” but he did not dwell on the theme that the United States routinely gets the short end of the international trade stick.
“I am here today to represent the interests of the American people, and to affirm America’s friendship and partnership in building a better world,” Trump said.
He made no mention of climate change and his announcement last year that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Other leaders who attended the Davos session this year, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have criticized Trump for pulling out of the global compact.
Trump’s insistence Friday that the United States must be treated fairly in its dealings with other nations echoed his complaints about the Paris agreement, however. Both reflect Trump’s continued skepticism about international arrangements that he sees as infringements on U.S. sovereignty.
“We cannot have free and open trade if some countries exploit the system at the expense of others,” he said.
He took a sidelong shot at China, as he warned that the United States will not turn a blind eye to the theft of U.S. intellectual property and to state-subsidized economic interference.
His trade message was largely familiar but delivered without the broadsides he often employs against multilateral trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He withdrew the United States from the TPP in the first days of his administration last year.
Executives and foreign leaders said they heard a shift here in U.S. policy on trade. Trump and his Cabinet used to say they would make only bilateral trade deals, but they have now opened the door to multi-country deals.
“There’s a subtle change in how he’s talking about trade,” said Douglas Peterson, CEO of S&P Global. “That to me is the good thing about him coming to Davos. He’s meeting free traders, and he’s shifting a little bit.”
Peterson pointed to the language in the speech about the TPP. Trump once called the Obama-era deal a “rape of our country,” but in Davos, he said there was potential for a multilateral deal on different terms.
“As I have said, the United States is prepared to negotiate mutually beneficial, bilateral trade agreements with all countries,” Trump said Friday. “This will include the countries in TPP, which are very important. We have agreements with several of them already. We would consider negotiating with the rest, either individually, or perhaps as a group, if it is in the interests of all.”
“I think they changed their tone a little bit about the free-trade agreement,” said Brian Mikkelsen, Denmark’s minister for industry, business and financial affairs.
Mikkelsen said U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross indicated in a meeting that the U.S.-European Union trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is still alive for negotiation.
Trump said his own business background was good preparation for the presidency.
“I’ve always been good at building things, and I’ve always been successful at making money,” Trump said.
He drew hisses and boos, as well as some laughter, when he told World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab that “it wasn’t until I became a politician that I realized how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be.”
Overall, however, Trump seemed in a jovial mood throughout his two-day visit to one of the world’s most rarefied — and sometimes ridiculed — talkfests. He heaped praise on Schwab and even conferred a nickname on the economist: “The Professor.” He called a group of more than a dozen European business executives with whom he dined Thursday “my newfound friends.”
“Davos has been exciting. We’re bringing a lot of things back to our country, including tremendous goodwill,” Trump said earlier Friday, as he met with Swiss President Alain Berset.
“We have a tremendous crowd, and a crowd like they’ve never had before,” Trump said Friday, as he entered the meeting hall. “It’s a crowd like they’ve never had before at Davos. I assume they’re here because of Klaus,” he added, apparently joking about Swiss economist Schwab, who is a celebrity among the international financial set but not otherwise widely known.
Currents of suspicion about Trump were felt in the crowd of about 1,600, however, mingled with curiosity about whether he would modulate his often brash and boastful style.
Schwab introduced Trump ahead of his speech and drew murmurs of discontent when he suggested the U.S. president has been misunderstood or judged too harshly.
“I’m aware that your leadership is open to misconceptions and biased interpretations,” Schwab said, as a few people booed.
“Therefore it is so essential for us in the room to listen directly to you,” he said.