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Trump takes 'America First' message to Davos elite

4 min

Davos (Switzerland) (AFP)

Donald Trump rappels into the snowy Swiss Alps on Thursday to address Davos summiteers anxious to see whether they will get a pitch from a capitalist kindred spirit or a lecture from a populist president.

Trump is due to deliver the closing address at the World Economic Forum on Friday and aides say he will use his surprise maiden appearance to play salesman-in-chief, making the case for investment in a revitalised America.

"(This trip) is about an America First agenda but America First does mean working with the rest of the world," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters in Davos.

"It just means that President Trump is looking out for American interests, no different than other leaders look out for their own," he added.

The president's security and logistical teams scrambled to prepare the trip at short notice, scouring the valleys around Davos for limited hotel space, battling snowstorms and finding themselves briefly hamstrung by a US government shutdown.

Aside from his speech, Trump will hold meetings with the British and Israeli prime ministers, both of whom are due to address the forum on Thursday, as well as Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

With Kagame, Trump will likely try to turn a page on his reported derogatory comment about "shithole" African countries.

For her part, British leader Theresa May will encourage activist investors to pressure social media firms into clamping down on fake news, hate speech and sexual harassment, according to excerpts of her speech released by Downing Street.

- Mixed welcome -

By the numbers, Trump and his phalanx of six cabinet ministers visiting Davos have a good story to tell, as he becomes the first sitting president to attend since Bill Clinton in 2000.

Trump's business-friendly tax cuts and a record-breaking bull run on Wall Street have wowed many in the Davos crowd. US growth edged up to 3.2 percent in the third quarter.

But the decision by Trump -- the self-styled anti-globalist president -- to attend the world's most notable gathering of globalists, and at an exclusive Swiss ski resort no less, has left some scratching their heads.

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 impending inauguration.

Davos is "not exactly a sympathetic audience" for Trump, according to William Allen Reinsch of the Center for International and Security Studies. "Walking into the lion's den is an apt metaphor."

Indeed, other government leaders attending Davos have lined up to poke holes in the Trump approach this week.

Picking up the threads of arguments outlined by the Indian, Canadian and German premiers, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday acknowledged that globalist policies need to adapt to help those left behind.

But implicitly rebuking Trump, he insisted: "Those that don't want to move forward should not block the most ambitious people in the room."

However in a later interview with Swiss radio, Macron said he wanted Trump to be at the Alpine resort.

"We spoke on the phone and I urged him to come to Davos, to explain his strategy and swim in these waters, to confront other ideas," he said.

"I disagree with him on his method, but on our purpose we agree," he said, adding he was "very attached" to the United States being a partner.

Trump can expect a warm welcome in Davos from some business executives happy about his tax cuts and deregulation drive.

They are keen now to see which version of Trump will show up -- the business-friendly tycoon or the leader who berated the rest of the world at the UN General Assembly last September.

"It is hard to predict whether the president will seek to reassure or provoke his audience in Davos," said former treasury secretary Larry Summers, a Democrat.

- Trade troops deploying -

The Trump administration has repeatedly lashed out at allegedly unfair trade agreements and practices, and this week it targeted imports of solar panels and large washing machines, angering China and South Korea.

Soon after he took office, Trump announced the United States was pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed in 2015 by a dozen nations that accounted for 40 percent of the global economy.

The remaining 11 countries announced Tuesday they would move forward with the deal without Washington.

Trump has also repeatedly threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is currently being renegotiated by its three participants -- Canada, Mexico and the United States.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking in Davos, staunchly defended the latest tariffs announcement.

The Trump administration is ready to do battle in trade if others fail to play fair, he said: "US troops are now coming to the ramparts."

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