Which Donald Trump is about to descend upon the global elite in Switzerland at this week’s Davos Economic Forum: the New York businessman hoping for inclusion in the world’s top echelons, or the populist leader set on bullying his detractors into submission?
White House officials said Tuesday that the president’s goal for his upcoming trip, which will include a large portion of his administration, is to “sell his accomplishments” and push Davos attendees to invest in the United States in a way that still falls in line with his campaign promises.
But business and world leaders are awaiting a definitive answer from the impossible-to-predict president himself. Those already in Davos are busying themselves as they await Trump’s arrival, trading jokes and nervous laughter as they try to figure out what Trump's message will be to the same group of people he has routinely railed against for years.
They have also been referring not-so-subtly to the president as "our Friday speaker," with broad confusion about why Trump is attending the forum — the first president to do so since Bill Clinton in 2000. Is the purpose to denounce Davos to the US; to schmooze in a club he's always wanted to be invited to; or to get deals done? In other words, he could either "reassure or provoke his audience," as Larry Summers, economic adviser to former President Obama, questioned in an editorial in the Financial Times.
"If I were talking to Donald Trump — and who knows, maybe he's watching TV somewhere — I would say: Come to Davos to build alliances," said Jane Harman, a former Democratic member of Congress from California and now-president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, at Davos Tuesday. "It's the right thing to do and it's the best strategy in a world that's increasingly tribal," she said, describing DC to this global audience as "the entertainment capital of the world."
Another Davos attendee, David Gergen, a political commentator and former White House adviser to four presidents, said Trump has "two fundamental choices." "Is he going to appeal to the international audience, or is he going to play to his base? In the past he's consistently chosen to play to his base. I assume he's going to do that rather than convince people America is going to engage in the world."
So far, Trump administration officials and advisers have indicated it will be more of the latter, saying the president will stick to his "America First" agenda and use the same tone he's used on his previous foreign trips.
Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster — two top Trump officials who have been specifically scrutinized by Breitbart and the far right as being excessively “globalist” — defended Trump’s intentions during Tuesday’s White House press briefing. Trump, they announced, will host a reception with world leaders Thursday night followed by a small dinner with CEOs from European companies. “A prosperous America benefits the world,” said Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, adding that the campaign slogan was “America First” not “America alone.”
“When the United States grows, so does the world,” he said.
"The president is going to be who he has been," Bryan Lanza, former Trump campaign and transition adviser, told BuzzFeed News. "Schmoozing is part of who he is, so he's obviously going to schmooze, but he's also going to be frank with them. It's going to be a healthy exchange of camaraderie but also reality that this US president is different from others, and he's comfortable being different."
Lanza said he expects tough talk on trade to be a focus for the president, telling "the world community that these trade agreements have hurt the American workers and that time's up."
Trump, though, has a tendency to please the people he is meeting with, rather than drilling into them with criticism. That trait nearly shifted the immigration debate between Congress and the White House over the last several weeks, as Trump came close to a deal that would have included a major Democratic priority during a one-on-one meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last Friday and when Trump appeared to temporarily agree to a Democratic bill during an on-camera meeting with a bipartisan group of senators earlier this month.
Former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who is close to the administration, said he thinks the president will be “tough” but not too critical of his audience in his speech “to soften them for the negotiations” on the sidelines. “He knows that America’s long-term economic interest is in having good trade partners down the road,” Kingston said. “He is a guy who will sit down and haggle.”
Besides trade, Kingston said he expects Iran and North Korean sanctions to come up, and he doesn’t necessarily think Trump has turned off those in the audience based on his previous comments. “I think they’re curious about Donald Trump,” Kingston said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump confidante who is also traveling to Davos, told BuzzFeed News the trip is "all about trying to make sure that we get our economy going and continue to keep it going." "(Trump's) message, certainly will be one on trade and how we view that in the best way to benefit not only the United States but certainly other international countries."
The president is taking a big delegation — 15 cabinet members and top advisers — a reflection of the importance of the trip to his administration.
When the trip was first announced, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly argued that it did not reflect any changes in Trump's thinking or policy.
"Just to be extremely clear, the president’s message is very much the same here as it will be there; just the same as it was here, as it was when he made many stops in Asia," Sanders said. "This is very much an America First agenda. The president is still 100% focused and committed to promoting policies that promote strength for American businesses and the American worker. And that's going to be the same whether he’s in the US or any other place."
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has also previously rejected the idea that Trump going to Davos, a "hangout for globalists", goes against his campaign promises. "I can assure you," he said, "that the members of his Cabinet have no interest in going over there and rubbing elbows with anybody."
Speaking to the press in Davos on Wednesday, however, Mnuchin said the delegation's objective was to "interact with important counterparts" and said their message would be "that we’re open for business".
"This is not just about what’s good for the US but what’s good for the rest of the world," he said.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, also part of the delegation, took a tougher tone, pushing back on the idea that Trump's America First policy was an outlier at Davos, a forum that likes to tout the interconnectedness of the world. "A lot of countries are good on the rhetoric of free trade but actually practice real protectionism," Ross told reporters.
Tarini Parti reported from Washington, DC; Ben Smith reported from Davos, Switzerland. Lissandra Villa contributed reporting from Washington and Miriam Elder from Davos.
Tarini Parti is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.