Steven Mnuchin has a big decision to make. The treasury secretary says he will announce today whether he’s sticking with his plan to attend the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh next week.
The trip is an increasingly lonely prospect, as fellow global finance chiefs, Wall Street bigs, corporate executives and others have beat a steady parade away from the "Davos in the desert" conference. A building pile of evidence suggesting the Saudi regime's involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has made the event toxic. (Axios is updating a list of those shunning the event here.)
Addressing reporters Wednesday, Mnuchin said he would “revisit the decision again tomorrow,” noting that “for now” he’s committed to attend. He said he would make a final call based on a report that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Saudi Arabia this week, delivers to President Trump. During his trip, Pompeo privately warned Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in blunt terms that he needs to "own" the situation and that the facts will come out, CNN reports.
But the Trump administration has resisted assigning blame, with the president repeatedly reaching for reasons to protect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as my colleagues Bob Costa, Josh Dawsey and Phil Rucker report: “Trump has stressed Saudi Arabia’s massive investment in U.S. weaponry and worries it could instead purchase arms from China or Russia. He has fretted about the oil-rich desert kingdom cutting off its supply of petroleum to the United States. He has warned against losing a key partner countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East. He has argued that even if the United States tried to isolate the Saudis, the kingdom is too wealthy to ever be truly isolated.”
Trump "has argued that even if the United States tried to isolate the Saudis, the kingdom is too wealthy to ever be truly isolated," they write.
Against that backdrop, it would play against recent history for Mnuchin, a stout Trump loyalist, to scotch his plans. Recall, for example, that Gary Cohn — who is also Jewish — considered resigning last summer after the president equivocated about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville; Mnuchin made clear at the time under no circumstances would he consider such a move.
Mnuchin's attendance at the Saudi conferece has become a proxy for Senate Republicans eager for the administration to register some outrage over Khashoggi. The latest: Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who said Wednesday he didn’t think it was “appropriate” for Mnuchin to attend. He joins fellow GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), and Todd C. Young (Ind.) in calling for the treasury secretary to skip the event.
Secretary Mnuchin should not be going to Riyadh.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) October 16, 2018
America’s basic and fundamental values demand a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I continue to believe that Secretary Mnuchin should not attend the investment conference in Riyadh next week.— Senator Todd Young (@SenToddYoung) October 16, 2018
Not all Senate Republicans agree. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said Wednesday that Mnuchin should attend if he wants. “Those are important meetings,” he said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News Radiothat he’s withholding judgment about the appropriate broader response until Pompeo delivers his report. “If what happened is what we think happened, I can't imagine there won't be a response,” he said.
Meanwhile, the details emerging about what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 are getting ever grislier. The New York Times reports that Saudi agents were waiting for him. “Mr. Khashoggi was dead within minutes, beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within two hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official on Wednesday.” The paper also reports that U.S. intelligence officials have growing circumstantial evidence that MBS was involved.
Controversy over the event is bound to overwhelm next week's conference, says Jon Alterman, the head of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — and that's one reason he says Mnuchin should skip it. “The Treasury Secretary not only doesn’t have anything to advance on the political front but also is almost invariably going to be photographed smiling,” he said. “That’s not the right mood to convey at this moment.”
And he said there’s little downside to bowing out. “The Saudis need us and are not going to punish us in a fit of pique,” Alderman said. “I don't think there’s a cost to not going to the conference. I think there’s a cost to going, which is the growing sense that the administration is trying to be an accomplice to obstructing truth rather than finding truth.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Mnuchin as a former Democrat. He is a Republican who has a history of donating to Democrats.
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