President Trump gave his salesman’s pitch for America on Friday before an international crowd of corporate and political titans, and took credit for its economic success, even as he was shadowed by fresh clouds from home about his heightened jeopardy in the Russia investigation and opposition to his immigration plan.
Contrary to predictions that Trump might use his keynote address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to bash multilateral trade deals and international alliances, as he did during his campaign, he appeared to soften the edges of his “America First” policy in his speech to the elites who gather in this glitzy Alpine resort each winter to champion free trade and global cooperation.
“America is open for business and we are competitive once again,” Trump told several hundred attendees, reading his speech from teleprompters. “Now is the perfect time to bring your business, your jobs and your investments to the United States.”
Given the complaints here about Trump’s aggressive trade policies and worries that America is withdrawing from its global leadership role, Trump received general credit for showing up and hobnobbing with fellow world leaders and moguls at an event that has not seen a U.S. president since Bill Clinton in 2000.
Some in the crowd booed and hissed when Trump, during a question-and-answer session that followed his speech, said it “wasn’t until I became a politician that I realize how nasty, how mean, how vicious, and how fake the press can be.”
While Trump’s anti-media remarks are familiar to Americans, they struck a dissonant note on the international stage since U.S. presidents historically have been global clarions for a free press.
Although the evidence was scant, Trump dropped at least one hint he might be moderating other views.
Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau announced here that his country would join 10 others that have agreed to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact without the United States. Trump withdrew from the proposed accord shortly after taking office, calling it a “horrible deal.”
In his comments here, Trump cracked the door slightly to reentering the TPP in some way, saying he was open to negotiating trade deals with the 11 countries “either individually, or perhaps as a group.”
That sparked a buzz of comment here and on social media. Trump vowed to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement during the campaign, but his administration is seeking to renegotiate it with Mexico and Canada. In contrast, the White House has shown no sign it is reconsidering its decision on TPP.
And while global challenges like climate change and poverty dominate the agenda here, the CEOs and other top executives Trump met in his 36-hour visit publicly applauded the corporate tax cuts he signed into law last month.
All that put Trump in a good mood.
“I've been a cheerleader for our country,” Trump said in his speech, which largely echoed familiar White House talking points. “And everybody representing a company or a country has to be a cheerleader, or no matter what you do, it's just not going to work.”
Trump said he will put America first just as other leaders should put their countries first, a line he used in a harder-edged address he delivered at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November.
Trump accused “some countries” of exploiting the international trading system at the expense of others. He said he supports free trade, but it “needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal.”
“The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to unfair economic practices, including massive intellectual property theft, industrial subsidies, and pervasive state-led economic planning,” he said, probably a reference to China.
At his raucous political rallies back home, that sentiment often generates loud cheers. The crowd at Davos stayed silent, saving polite applause for the end of his remarks.
As he often does, Trump claimed credit for the booming U.S. economy, citing growth numbers and the removal business regulations. That message was partly diluted by news Friday that U.S. growth slowed slightly in the fourth quarter to 2.6%, which was short of Trump’s projections.
The Davos conference is considered the premier event for the world’s wealthy glitterati, a familiar group to the billionaire owner of Mar-a-Lago and other high-end hotels and resorts. In his speech, Trump nodded to his working-class supporters, saying that “when people are forgotten, the world becomes fractured.”
Trump also couldn’t resist taking a jab at Hillary Clinton despite the American tradition of steering clear of partisan politics while on foreign soil. In the question-and-answer session, Trump said the stock market would have dropped 50% if “the opposing party” had won instead of him.
The audience scored the tone of Trump’s speech carefully, given his antagonism to international organizations and pacts, such as the Paris climate accord, trade agreements and the Iran nuclear deal that are generally celebrated at the conference.
It was partly overshadowed at home after the New York Times reported late Thursday that Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last June, halting the effort only after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign.
Nor could Trump escape fallout here from reports that he had labeled African nations “shithole countries” during a recent Oval Office meeting with several members of Congress. The comments sparked widespread condemnation around the globe.
Trump ignored reporters’ questions about the crude language when he met early Friday with Paul Kagame, longtime president of Rwanda and incoming chairman of the African Union. Kagame is the first African leader Trump has met since his comments were reported on Jan. 11.
The African Union had called on Trump to apologize for the remarks, which he has denied making. It is not known whether the dispute came up in Trump’s private discussion with Kagame. A subsequent statement from the White House summarizing the meeting did not mention the issue.
"It's a great honor to be with President Kagame,” Trump told reporters as he sat beside Kagame and several aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “We have had tremendous discussions."
Kagame also tried to smooth over the dispute, thanking Trump “for the support we have received from you … and your administration.”
Trump also dismissed a shouted question about the Mueller development as “fake news.” Instead, he boasted of how his appearance had swelled the crowd at Davos this year.
"We have a tremendous crowd, and a crowd like they've never had before. It's a crowd like they've never had before at Davos,” Trump bragged as he entered the hall with Klaus Schwab, the Germany founder of the forum.
Then, in a rare burst of modesty, he quipped, “I assume they're here because of Klaus."
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from Trump’s meetings in Davos.
6 a.m.: This article was updated with Trump’s comments.
This article was originally published at 2:10 a.m.