Malaysians were flabbergasted to hear that the U.S. president had singled out the prime minister for this privilege – especially since it was a little more than one year ago that the Justice Department announced that it was filing civil forfeiture suits targeting 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which was founded by Najib and is controlled by his government. The U.S. investigators allege that the prime minister and members of his entourage misappropriated $4.5 billion from the fund. (The fund insists that it has never given money to the prime minister, and he has consistently denied taking money from 1MDB or any other public funds.)
The timing of Najib’s White House visit seems especially questionable, considering that it will come just a month after the Justice Department announced that it was proceeding with a criminal probe into the matter even while suspending a series of civil lawsuits it had previously filed. The Justice Department describes the 1MDB investigation as the “largest single action ever brought” under the Kleptocracy Recovery Initiative, created in 2010 to tackle high-level corruption around the world.
The United States isn’t the only one looking into the matter, either. At least five other countries are conducting probes of their own. The prime minister has continued to stay on top by firing critics in the senior ranks of government and purging the leadership of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (which is supposed to be an independent watchdog). When Malaysian officials accused him of transferring $1 billion from 1MDB to his personal account, Najib said that the money was a “donation” from a Saudi royal family member (which the Saudis later confirmed).
Malaysia’s authoritarian system makes it extremely difficult to demand the needed accountability, and the mainstream media in the country have correspondingly stopped reporting about the subject.
So why would the White House deem it appropriate to invite a leader who is potentially implicated in one of the largest corruption cases the Justice Department has ever launched?
Part of the answer appears to involve Trump’s own stance on the rule of law. Since assuming office this year, Trump has openly defied long-established norms on conflict of interest that his predecessors of both parties observed. He has refused to divest himself of his international real estate holdings and licensing companies, and he has appointed members of his family – who have their own myriad conflicts of interest – to important posts in his administration.
Malaysian journalists are now wondering whether Najib will use the visit to press Trump to drop the 1MDB probe. He is keen to show Malaysians that the U.S. authorities are not after him.
And then there’s North Korea. The Trump administration is struggling to build a regional consensus on containing the threat from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear brinkmanship, and Trump evidently sees Malaysia, which the North Koreans has used as a financial center, as an ally in that fight.
China’s rising influence is yet another factor. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently visited Southeast Asia, he couldn’t have helped noticing that the Trump administration’s “America First” policy has diminished America’s standing in the region, and that its position is under threat by arch-rival China, which has been busily expanding its influence.
Over the past year, Najib has made two investment trips to China that have yielded a host of fantastic deals – or, at least, that’s what he claims. There is, in fact, a conspicuous lack of transparency about the various agreements that have been negotiated. What we do know is that China is now Malaysia’s biggest foreign investor, and it has scheduled investments of close to $100 billion (some 32 percent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product) over the next two decades. Malaysia has also become an important implementing partner and signatory to the massive “One Belt One Road” regional plan. So Washington may be reluctant to do anything that might drive Najib further into Beijing’s arms.
Najib is a lucky man. Despite his involvement in the 1MDB scandal, the White House is demonstrating by its actions that it couldn’t care less about containing corruption around the world – even when another part of his own government has left little doubt of the magnitude of the scandal facing Malaysian leaders.
Trump’s own lax standards on conflict of interest, his desire to keep Malaysia on board as an ally against North Korea, and the rise of Chinese influence have all conspired to free Najib from any sense of accountability from his actions. Now Najib will be able to triumphantly dismiss his critics at home who have cited the Justice Department investigation as confirmation that the Americans regard him as a wanted man.
It appears that the geopolitical interests of the Trump administration have hollowed out the U.S. commitment to fight international corruption. Rolling out the red carpet for Prime Minister Najib is a terrible idea.