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Dodging bad headlines and boos, Trump tries to charm Davos

Donald Trump

Davos, Switzerland | AFP | President Donald Trump on Friday reached out to the global business and political elite in Davos with a sales pitch for the US economy, but provoked boos for attacking the media after waking up to another round of adverse headlines.

In a 15-minute speech at the climax of his debut appearance at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps, Trump offered “America’s friendship and partnership” in both trade and security, and said: “‘America First’ does not mean America alone.”

“The world is experiencing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America. America is open for business and we are competitive once again,” he said, although his message was tarnished a touch by new data showing the world’s biggest economy slowed in the fourth quarter.

Trump kept to an orthodox political script and measured tone in his speech, during which he praised his well-heeled audience of 1,500 people as comprising some of the world’s most “remarkable citizens”.

“Each of you has the power to change hearts, transform lives, and shape your countries’ destinies. With this power comes an obligation, however — a duty of loyalty to the people, workers and customers who have made you who you are,” Trump said.

He signalled potential willingness to return to a giant pan-Pacific trade pact that he rejected days after taking office, and said the United States supports free trade.

“But it needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal,” he said, condemning “predatory behaviours” such as theft of intellectual property, industrial subsidies and state-led economic planning.

The president’s speech came at the end of a week that saw his administration target China and South Korea with new tariffs, and experience turmoil in currency markets caused by his Treasury secretary apparently tolerating a weaker dollar.

His remarks on trade were met in silence by the Davos audience. But they booed when he strayed off piste during a brief question session after the speech, with an attack on the “nasty”, “mean”, “vicious” and “fake” press. Trump also reprised verbal attacks on North Korea and Iran.

– ‘He didn’t declare war’ –

On the whole, however, delegates expressed relief that the president had not resorted to the kind of tongue-lashing to which he subjected the United Nations General Assembly last September.

“It was positive in the sense that he didn’t declare any trade war, or any other wars,” European Commission vice president Jyrki Katainen of Finland told AFP. “It was more consensual than many of us may have expected,” he said.

Singapore’s former UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani said Trump’s speech was “a middle-of-the-road, unexciting, rational speech”.

“It was not at all what you expect from Donald Trump, who sometimes makes very wild statements,” he said.

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 a crowd anxious about Trump’s impending inauguration that week.

Trump has reconciled the Davos-bashing that characterised his unorthodox march to the White House with the need to sell America to the world, and the speech gave him the opportunity to try to shift the dial away from the latest unfavourable headlines back home.

The president awoke to a New York Times story that he had ordered the firing of Russia investigation special prosecutor Robert Mueller last year, but that he had to back off when the White House counsel threatened to resign.

“Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories,” Trump told reporters as he arrived at the forum Friday, before delivering his speech and then jetting home on Air Force One.

– The crowds are back –

The president did use a British television interview recorded in Davos to strike a rare note of contrition on another controversy.

After last year retweeting a British far-right group’s videos apparently showing Islamist violence, Trump said in the interview broadcast Friday: “If you’re telling me they’re horrible racist people, I would certainly apologise if you’d like me to do that.”

The charge that Trump is racist earned new traction this month with his reported slur against “shithole” countries in Africa.

Before his speech in Davos, he held talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who currently chairs the African Union. Trump asked Kagame to pass on his “warmest regards” to other regional leaders at an AU summit this weekend.

But some business chiefs and activists from Africa, still incensed at the slur, boycotted the speech.

Trump’s presence in Switzerland has been dogged by protests and stunts by activists.

But the president said there was “a tremendous crowd” of unprecedented size to meet him at the summit — raising memories of the controversy a year ago when he claimed record numbers had attended his inauguration, in the face of all evidence.

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