PRESIDENT TRUMP has made a habit of embracing authoritarian rulers he regards as friendly, without regard for their subversion of democratic norms or gross human rights violations. Yet his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia's progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.
U.S. investigators have charged that Mr. Najib and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own uses, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the prime minister. Justice first filed civil suits seeking the freezing of some $1.7 billion in assets in the United States, including real estate, artworks and stakes in Hollywood movies; more recently, the department asked that those actions be put on hold while it pursues a criminal investigation. Mr. Najib has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing, but the U.S. investigation prompted speculation in Malaysia that he could be arrested if he set foot on American soil — not good PR for a leader who is obligated to call an election sometime in the next few months.
With his White House invitation, Mr. Trump has neatly gotten Mr. Najib off that hook and provided him with what the regime will portray as a tacit pre-election endorsement. Despite his repression, Mr. Najib could use that sort of help: In the last election, in 2013, his party lost the popular vote and retained power only because of the gerrymandering of election districts.
If the White House received anything in exchange for that huge political favor, it's not evident. That's particularly unfortunate because Mr. Najib's regime is not only a conspicuous violator of human rights but a relative friend to North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong Un has exported workers to Malaysia to earn hard currency. Kim Jong Un's estranged half brother was murdered in Kuala Lumpur's international airport — so far with no consequences for Pyongyang.
Mr. Trump isn't the first U.S. president to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. President Barack Obama golfed with the prime minister and flattered him with the first visit by a U.S. president to Malaysia in nearly half a century. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump may imagine that courting Mr. Najib is a necessary counter to China, which has hosted him twice in the past year and wooed him with promises of about $100 billion in investments. Yet Mr. Najib's corruption and disregard for democratic norms mean he will inevitably prefer the values-free patronage of Beijing over alliance with Washington.
The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States. If Mr. Trump makes a start at that on Tuesday, he could begin to mitigate the error of inviting Mr. Najib to the White House.