By GARDINER HARRIS
WASHINGTON — President Trump has invited Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia to visit the White House in September despite Mr. Najib’s involvement in a billion-dollar corruption scandal.
The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the visit was intended to “strengthen and broaden our bilateral relationship and expand regional cooperation with one of America’s closest partners in Southeast Asia.”
The invitation represents a significant boost to Mr. Najib’s international standing and is likely to put to rest rumors in Malaysia that he would be arrested the next time he stepped on American soil. In July, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint in a money-laundering case outlining how Mr. Najib, identified as “Malaysian Official 1,” received $731 million from a government fund he oversaw. Investigators around the world are tracking the money trail to his bank accounts in what has become a billion-dollar scandal.
Critics say the visit, scheduled for Sept. 12, also demonstrates that the Trump administration places concerns about corruption well behind other issues. Mr. Najib is yet another visitor to the Trump White House with a history of suppressing free speech and intimidating the political opposition, said Robert G. Berschinski of the advocacy group Human Rights First.
The invitation is “just another sign that this White House pays only lip service — if that — to the idea that promoting human rights or fighting corruption redounds to the benefit of the United States,” he said.
Since abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that would have tied together a dozen nations and 40 percent of the world’s economy, the Trump administration has been casting about for ways to regain its lost clout in Southeast Asia, a region increasingly dominated by China.
When Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson visited this month to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he confronted a resurgent China everywhere he went. Without the trade deal, Mr. Tillerson had little to offer to counter China.
So instead, the Trump administration has tempered longtime American criticism of poor human rights records or corruption allegations as it seeks to advance its interests in the region. Mr. Tillerson visited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has been accused of encouraging thousands of killings by the police.
Mr. Duterte said after the meeting that Mr. Tillerson had “considerably toned down” American criticism of the Philippine drug war, a charge Mr. Tillerson’s spokesman later denied. Mr. Tillerson then visited Thailand despite a 2014 coup by the country’s military.
Elina Noor, of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said Mr. Najib’s visit to the White House “would underline Najib’s stature as a respected leader and statesman warmly welcomed in the United States at the highest level, simultaneously quashing controversial allegations against him.”
Malaysia was part of the Trans-Pacific accord, but Mr. Najib has more recently expressed skepticism about joining the trade pact without the United States — a position bound to endear him to Mr. Trump.
Over the years, Mr. Najib has been accused of having ties to a murder, taking kickbacks from the purchase of military hardware and helping concoct a criminal prosecution against a rival.
But he is expected to easily win re-election in 2018 and is considered an important partner to the United States in the region. – Read more New York Times