Trump Focuses on Economy at Davos, Seeking a Counter to Impeachment

President Donald Trump delivers opening remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Seated at right is Klaus Schwab, founder of the forum. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Annie Karni and David Gelles

c.2020 The New York Times Company


DAVOS, Switzerland — President Donald Trump swept into this glitzy Alpine village on Tuesday, full of flattery as he schmoozed with global business leaders, as if there were no talk of removing him from office and no impeachment trial unfolding 4,000 miles away in Washington.

Trump appeared to relish the escape offered by the World Economic Forum and the friendly — to his face, at least — crowd of elites in the snow-covered Alps. He was in a jovial mood, according to people who spoke with him, engaging in animated conversations with chief executives like Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet and Marc Benioff of Salesforce.

He congratulated them on their companies’ stock performances and joked that he should have bought shares but that he had been forced to sell his holdings when he took office. As Trump and his family members darted between meetings in makeshift pavilions, they studiously avoided questions about the drama back home, where the Senate was expected to begin a fierce partisan squabble over the rules for putting the president on trial.

Trump’s trip to Davos was his first appearance on the international stage since Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Before he arrived in the Swiss town, the open question, as always with Trump, was how much he would stray from his script and vent his grievances about his legal and political predicament.

But Trump stuck to his prepared remarks, making inflated claims about his role in a global economic recovery and touting a message of America’s supremacy. When reporters asked him about the impeachment trial, he swatted it away as “just a hoax.”

“America’s economy was in a rather dismal state,” Trump said during his 30-minute speech. “Before my presidency began, the outlook for many economies was bleak.”

Although the economy’s recovery after its plummet was central to President Barack Obama’s legacy, Trump said that his administration had created a “roaring geyser of opportunity” and proclaimed that “the American dream is back bigger, better and stronger than ever before.”

Addressing a global audience, Trump delivered what amounted to a version of his campaign speech, speaking little of international alliances and touting America’s supremacy in the world.

At a conference that has dedicated itself this year to the issue of global warming, Trump also took a swipe at those demanding action. He announced that the United States would join an initiative to plant a trillion trees that was launched at the event, but he also declared that “we must reject the perennial prophets of doom” and that it was “not a time for pessimism.”

Former Vice President Al Gore, who was seen leaving Trump’s speech, declined to comment on the president’s remarks.

Trump arrived in Switzerland on Tuesday morning, taking a ride in Marine One over the Alps, from Zurich to Davos. The altitude increased the sense that the bitter partisan fight that would take place in the Capitol was a world away.

As his motorcade made its way through twisty, snow-covered streets to the Davos Congress Centre, a group of nine Swiss tenors entertained the crowd with a version of “Ranz des vaches,” a mellifluous song for calling home cows.

It was a more peaceful serenade than the songs that typically precede Trump’s entrance onstage, like “Macho Man” by the Village People and “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.

Trump was also a more mellow version of himself.

He highlighted the first phase of his trade deal with China and another with Mexico and Canada. And the audience appeared receptive, having warmed to him over the past two years as they have benefited from his policies.

“Lev Parnas is not a topic of conversation at Davos,” said Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group, a political research and consulting firm.

Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has been on a media tour over the past week, asserting that the president was fully aware of the campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals. Democrats have not ruled out trying to call Parnas as a witness in the impeachment trial.

In Davos, however, television screens were filled with the face of a different Trump antagonist: teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was the other star speaker of the day. In a speech there, she warned that “our house is still on fire” and that “inaction is fueling the flames by the hour.”

Trump did not mention Thunberg by name in his speech. But when he talked about the importance of clean water and clean air, he added that “fear and doubt is not a good thought process.”

Hanging over the conference was also the question of whether Trump would try to stage a surprise meeting there with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, even though officials said the optics of such a meeting would be unhelpful to Trump.

In Davos, however, Trump may have found the right audience for support to counter the impeachment trial that is dominating the news at home. There was less anxiety about him rippling through the 1% set on Tuesday than when he arrived at the annual forum two years ago, fresh off an “America First” campaign filled with promises to rip up international agreements and alliances.

This time, there was more concern about some of the progressive Democrats running to replace him. Through regulatory rollbacks, tax cuts and the success of the global economy, the president who ran as a populist has benefited many of the chief executives gathered at the event, even those who have taken public positions against some of his policies.

“There are lot of masters of the universe who think he may not be their cup of tea, but he’s been a godsend,” said Bremmer, of Eurasia Group. “It’s interesting to hear Mike Bloomberg saying he would fund Bernie Sanders’ campaign if he won the nomination. Very few people here would say that.”