His moment in the global sun was shadowed to an extent by a New York Times report that he had tried to fire the special counsel investigating his campaign ties to Russia and backed off only when the White House counsel threatened to resign. Mr. Trump dismissed the report as “fake news,” even though other news outlets confirmed it, and he otherwise tried to ignore it publicly.
But his unlikely visit to Davos was meant to be a shift in tone from his populist, protectionist rhetoric. He went so far as to say that he would be willing to re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asian trade agreement he abandoned last year, if it was renegotiated on better terms. That offer came just days after the other 11 members opted to form their own bloc without the United States.
“We would consider negotiating with the rest, either individually, or perhaps as a group, if it is in the interests of all,” Mr. Trump said, despite his oft-stated insistence on one-on-one trade deals rather than multinational pacts.
Mr. Trump was largely well received by the billionaire investors, corporate executives and heads of state who a year ago were fretting that his election would mean the demise of the global order they had built, but today were celebrating his tax cuts and regulatory rollback.
“The economy has improved since Trump came in,” said Kanika Dewan, president of Bramco, a company that builds airports around the globe from headquarters in New Delhi and Bahrain. “His offensive comments are mostly about capturing media attention. At the end of the day, he’s not going to do anything to destroy his legacy.”
Brian Mikkelsen, Denmark’s minister of industry, business and financial affairs, welcomed Mr. Trump’s legislation slashing corporate tax rates. “I’m quite sure, talking to Danish business leaders, that they will invest more in the States because of these tax cuts,” he said.
But like others, Mr. Mikkelsen emerged somewhat uncertain about which Mr. Trump to expect in the months ahead. “It was impossible to guess what direction he will take” on trade, he said.
Mr. Trump used the overnight visit to salve other wounds. He expressed regret for sharing anti-Muslim videos posted by an ultranationalist British fringe group, which offended Prime Minister Theresa May. “If you are telling me they’re horrible people, horrible, racist people, I would certainly apologize, if you’d like me to do that,” Mr. Trump told Britain’s ITV.
For Mr. Trump, whose rule is “never apologize,” that was an unusual concession. But he offered no public apology for recent offensive comments about African countries when he met on Friday with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the chairman of the African Union. The union demanded a retraction and apology at the time of the remarks, but neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Kagame mentioned the incident on camera on Friday.
Beyond those meetings, Mr. Trump’s visit focused to a striking degree on business. His speech mentioned priorities like terrorism, Iran and North Korea in passing, but included nothing about China, Russia, Europe, climate change, global health or other priorities. He related to the audience as a fellow capitalist, asserting, incorrectly, that he was the only businessman to have served as president.
Declaring that “America is roaring back,” he promoted a story of economic rebirth. “The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America,” he said. “I’m here to deliver a simple message: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States. America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.”
His comeback message, however, was tempered by a report that came out while he was on stage. The American economy grew by 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, healthy but lower than the 3 percent or 4 percent or higher that he has aspired to. Over all, the economy grew 2.3 percent in 2017, Mr. Trump’s first year in office, up from 1.5 percent in 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year, but lower than in either 2014 or 2015.
As he often does, Mr. Trump presented a selective version of the last year. He boasted that African-American unemployment was at a new low, but did not mention that it began falling in 2011, and that the decline this year simply continued the progress that started under Mr. Obama.
He claimed credit for creating 2.4 million jobs since his election, but the number of new jobs in 2017 was no higher than in any of the last six years of Mr. Obama’s tenure.
Still, he was right that stock markets have soared to remarkable heights on his watch and that the American business community had responded to his tax cuts and regulatory rollback with enthusiasm. His surprisingly warm reception here, despite the schism over trade and global affairs, underscored the optimism of many corporate leaders.
Klaus Schwab, who founded the World Economic Forum in 1971, not only praised Mr. Trump on stage, but also seemed to exonerate the myriad incendiary actions that have troubled many in the corporate community. ”I’m aware that your strong leadership is open to misconceptions and biased interpretations,” Mr. Schwab said. Some in the audience felt that went too far, and booed.
Mr. Trump’s speech was largely written by Gary D. Cohn, the president’s national economic adviser and a former Goldman Sachs banker, and Robert Porter, the White House staff secretary. Stephen Miller, the immigration hard-liner who often crafts the president’s more provocative speeches, was busy working on next week’s State of the Union address.
In conversations over the last few days, Mr. Trump agreed to offer a more optimistic, less strident tone to show flexibility without making any substantive compromise. He stuck closely to the script on the teleprompter. Even during a later 10-minute session of questions and answers with Mr. Schwab, Mr. Trump generally stuck to the talking points, although he could not resist a jab at the “fake” media and noted that many in the room supported his Democratic opponent in 2016.
“He was the marketer-in-chief,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit, a research and information company focused on energy. “He was selling America, he was selling the economic story and he was selling himself to an international business community who expected something else.”