Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he would not attend the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia next week, delivering the Trump administration’s first formal rebuke of Saudi’s royal family following the suspected killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi compound in Turkey.
Mnuchin made his announcement on Twitter, saying he had met with President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but he did not explain the reasoning for the decision.
“Just met with @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo and we have decided, I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia,” he wrote.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and a columnist for The Washington Post, disappeared after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month. Turkish officials have said that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate by Saudi Arabian agents.
Mounting evidence suggests the Saudi government has knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — one of Trump’s closest allies in the region — is connected to Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Last week, even after reports surfaced about a possible link between the alleged killing and the Saudi royal family, Mnuchin signaled that he would still attend the conference. Multiple financial executives and media outlets, however, have announced in recent days that they would not participate.
The event, one of the biggest international financial summits in the world, is seen as a major opportunity for Saudi officials to showcase their economy.
Trump has been less critical of Saudi Arabia’s response to Khashoggi’s disappearance than have other U.S. officials. He has defended the regime as an ally and said the public should wait for more information before forming a judgment. With the administration facing an outcry about Khashoggi’s disappearance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia several days ago, but he said he came back with no answers about what had happened to the Saudi journalist.
That turned the focus to Mnuchin, who is seen as very close to Trump and unwilling to buck the White House. The decision for Mnuchin to withdraw is “a sign that pressures from [Capitol] Hill and the media are making an impact,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, who spent 30 years at the CIA. “After Pompeo’s failure to get any action from the Saudis, another Cabinet-level meeting with the Crown Prince would be foolish and embarrassing.”
A person briefed on Mnuchin’s decision, speaking on condition of anonimity to discuss the deliberations, said the decision to withdraw was a unanimous one between Trump, Pompeo, and the Treasury secretary — but it was not the result of corporate pressure.
Before backing out of the conference earlier this week, the chief executives of JPMorgan, BlackRock and Blackstone – Jamie Dimon, Larry Fink and Stephen Schwarzman –had their staff contact Treasury Department officials to suggest that Mnuchin ask the Saudis to postpone or cancel the event, according to people familiar with the matter.
It’s still possible Mnuchin could travel to Saudi Arabia to visit the new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, a joint operation the Trump administration launched last year with Saudi officials, but a final decision has not been made.
Trump has said that any possible response to Khashoggi’s disappearance must take into account the United States’ security and defense ties with Saudi Arabia. In defending his reluctance to criticize the Saudi regime, Trump has cited Saudi Arabia’s huge investment in U.S. weapons and technology, suggesting the Arab nation could decide to instead purchase the material from China or Russia. Trump has cited the Saudi investment as being in excess of $100 billion, though experts believe that figure is highly inflated.
Trump has tried to forge a close relationship with bin Salman, and the president was feted with an elaborate celebration during a visit last year. Some Republicans have warned that the White House was at risk of becoming too close with a Saudi ruling family that is known for brutal tactics against its own people.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter Thursday that he “very much” agreed with Mnuchin’s decision to skip the conference. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had also called on Mnuchin not to attend.
The conference is scheduled for next week in Riyadh, and Mnuchin was under pressure from congressional Republicans to withdraw. His top advisers had said that he was waiting for more information before deciding whether to attend.
A string of high-profile business leaders have withdrawn from the conference over the past week, including the chief executives of Uber, JPMorgan Chase and Viacom, and the heads of asset managers BlackRock and Blackstone Group. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, also dropped out, as did top officials from Ford Motor Co. and Google.
Entrepreneurs Steve Case and Richard Branson were among the first business executives to distance themselves from the Saudis over Khashoggi’s alleged killing. Branson said that Saudi involvement in the journalist’s disappearance would “clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”