Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday, according to the Saudi government, illustrating how the White House is retaining close ties with the embattled Middle Eastern leader despite a growing international outcry over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry posted a photo of the meeting on Twitter. In a caption, the Saudi government wrote that Mohammed in the meeting stressed “the importance of the Saudi-US strategic partnership, where it holds an important role in the future in line with the Kingdom’s #Vision2030.”
Amid international backlash over Khashoggi’s killing, Mnuchin last week announced that he was withdrawing from a conference being held in Saudi Arabia
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, died at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey earlier this month, though the Saudi Arabian government has given conflicting reports on how it happened.
Tony Sayegh, Mnuchin’s top spokesman, said the two men discussed the Khashoggi investigation, sanctions against Iran and the Saudi economy, as well as combating the financing of terrorism.
Still, Treasury was reluctant to comment on the meeting, which had not been previewed in advance. Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official who is now head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting between the crown prince and Mnuchin is a way for Saudi officials to send a statement to the United States that they cannot be ignored and won’t be cowed by any investigation into Khashoggi’s death.
“He’s just trying to tough it out and say, ‘You have to deal with me,' " Riedel said. "'I’m in charge here. I’m not going anywhere. You can’t avoid having your picture taken with me when you come here.' ”
During the trip to the Middle East, Mnuchin has posted multiple photographs of his meetings with leaders from Israel and Jordan. But he did not post any photograph or statement about meeting with the crown prince.
President Trump has sought to tamp down growing criticism of the Saudi royal family in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, but he’s under growing pressure from Republicans in Congress to respond.
Even though Mnuchin said he wouldn’t attend a financial conference in Riyadh, he decided he would still travel to Saudi Arabia this week for other meetings. He was scheduled to meet with his Middle Eastern counterparts to discuss ways to combat terror financing, but he did not announce in advance that he would be meeting with the crown prince.
Mnuchin’s meeting with Mohammed comes just two weeks after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also traveled to Riyadh to meet with the crown prince. Trump has sought to shield Mohammed from the backlash over Khashoggi’s death, saying the royal family claimed it had no knowledge of what might have been a rogue operation at the consulate.
Trump has also said he didn’t want this to potentially spoil the close economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, particularly Saudi Arabia’s commitment to buy arms from U.S. companies.