Trump welcomes scandal-hit Malaysian PM

Andrew BEATTY
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US President Donald Trump greets Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak outside of the West Wing of the White House

US President Donald Trump welcomed Malaysia's prime minister to the White House Tuesday, amid questions about his guest's involvement in a spiraling corruption scandal.

Trump greeted Prime Minister Najib Razak at the West Wing with a handshake and warm thanks, brushing aside criticism for hosting a man being investigated by the US Justice Department.

"I want to thank you very much for all the investments you have made in the United States," Trump said during a joint appearance in the Cabinet Room, heralding a Boeing deal worth "20 billion dollars."

Trump also hailed Najib's "major role" in countering the Islamic State group and other jihadist groups. "He's been very very strong on terrorism in Malaysia and a great supporter from that standpoint. That's a very important thing for the United States,” he said.

The run-up to Najib's visit had been dominated by questions about his entanglement in an ongoing US Justice Department investigation.

- US probe -

The veteran prime minister faces allegations that billions were looted from a sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), in complex overseas deals that are being investigated by authorities in several countries, including the United States.

Both the prime minister and the fund deny any wrongdoing, but the Justice Department has filed civil lawsuits to seize assets, from high-end real estate to artworks, it says are worth about $1.7 billion.

The White House had refused to say whether Trump would raise the issue, preferring to shift the focus onto relations with a key partner in South East Asia.

Although the White House insisted there was no snub, Najib's opponents are sure to see the cancellation of a joint public appearance in the Oval Office as a sign of unease.

"Look, we're not going to comment on an ongoing investigation being led by the Department of Justice," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday. "That investigation is apolitical and certainly independent of anything taking place tomorrow."

"The United States and Malaysia have had a 60-year relationship and partnership built on common economic and security interests, and that continues."

Trump is expected to visit the region later this year for summits in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ahead of his arrival at the White House, Najib sought to play up majority-Muslim Malaysia's role as a partner in countering violent extremism.

He reiterated that message when the two leaders met face-to-face: "We are committed to fight Daesh, IS, Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf -- you name it," he said.

"They are the enemy of the United States, they are also the enemy of Malaysia. We will do our part to make sure our part of the world is safe."

- Criticism of Najib -

Ahead of the visit, Malaysian opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang painted that security focus as a deflection.

"No prime minister of Malaysia in the past 60 years had to face such phalanx of international media hostility or avalanche of adverse press publicity both in the United States and the world," he said in a statement.

"It is inconceivable that Najib would have the credibility to salvage his own as well as the nation’s reputation with his visit to the United States."

"Najib cannot free Malaysia from the ignominy and infamy of being regarded worldwide as a global kleptocrat."

In an editorial, the Washington Post said Najib's visit "sets a new low" for the Trump administration.

"Not only is Mr Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia's progress toward democracy," the paper wrote.

"He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the US Justice Department."

Trump faces his own Justice Department investigation into his presidential campaign's ties Russia and alleged efforts to obstruct justice. Trump has also denied any wrongdoing.