WASHINGTON — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is linked to a multibillion-dollar embezzlement scandal, and human rights groups say he has limited free speech, imprisoned opposition leaders, and locked up Malaysians who have “insulted” the government.
But on Tuesday, Najib was greeted at the White House by President Trump, who listened to his guest’s pledge to invest billions of dollars for US infrastructure while publicly ignoring his links to the scandal that the Justice Department is actively probing.
“It’s a great honor to have you in the United States and in the White House,” Trump said to Najib in the Cabinet room Wednesday morning.
It’s the latest example of Trump’s compliments directed at dictators: He called Russian President Vladimir Putin “very strong,” he praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is overseeing a crackdown on Islamists, for doing a “tremendous job under trying circumstance,” and he told Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte that he’s doing an “unbelievable job” fighting drug addiction even though the country’s police regularly kill addicts and dealers.
Of the 32 foreign leaders from sovereign countries that Trump has invited to the White House so far, 15 rule over nations that either score in the bottom half of the Global Democracy Ranking, which uses metrics to measure the health of 112 democracies in the world, or hail from countries like Saudi Arabia that have no pretense of democratic rule.
“The pattern with Trump has been one of very evident preference being shown for spending time with leaders who have similar tendencies to our president,” said Tom Malinowski, who was the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2014 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. “Leaders who don’t like a free press, who mix personal family business with the affairs of state, and who are disdainful of checks and balances. . . . In Trump they have a president who will not judge them and cannot judge them.”
Among those yet to get a sitdown at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are leaders from Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden, which happen to be the top democracies on the planet, according to the Global Democracy Ratings.
To be sure, relations in Southeast Asia are tricky. Malaysia is a key US trading partner, an ally in the war against terror, and a potential bulwark against growing Chinese influence in the region.
In Tuesday’s meeting, Najib offered to buy $10 billion worth of Boeing planes, steer up to $4 billion from the country’s pension fund to invest in US infrastructure, and help the United States win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims.
Presidents often meet leaders who’ve done unsavory deeds — Obama played golf with Najib in December 2014 — but what’s different now is the absence of a public slap on the wrist.
Obama distanced himself from Najib as corruption allegations snowballed in 2015. When Obama sat down with him, it was on the sidelines of global summits and included both public and private rebukes.
“The Obama administration met with him as needed,” said Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman for the Obama administration. “And in doing so he was very clear, both publicly and privately, about the values that we expected world leaders to adhere to,” which included the rule of law, transparency, and respecting human rights.
Najib’s government has been most recently ensnared in a global investigation into a multibillion-dollar fund established by the prime minister that was intended to make improvements in Malaysia.
More than $4.5 billion from that fund was “misappropriated,” according to a June announcement from the Justice Department. The department, at that point, had opened its largest-ever action brought under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to investigate what happened to the money, some of which it believed was laundered through US accounts.
Najib and operators of the fund have denied wrongdoing. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday that the investigation would not be discussed at the bilateral meeting. “That investigation is apolitical, and certainly independent of anything taking place tomorrow,” Sanders said.
Longtime diplomats say the most troubling aspect of the Najib meeting was that it’s become commonplace for Trump to glad-hand with autocrats and ignore their shortfallings — giving license for bad behavior.
“In my experience authoritarian leaders around the world are constantly hearing an American voice in their ears reminding them that they’re being watched,” said Malinowski, who often was that voice under the Obama administration. “While that voice doesn’t always dissuade them, it sometimes does. And now that voice is gone.”
The consequence for US reluctance to press human rights and democratic values could mean a world with less of those values.
“There’s been a broad deterioration in human rights in the past few years,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s accelerated in the last year. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that part of that is because the Trump administration is no longer pressing human rights issues.”
A tour around the world in the past year shows autocratic behavior is on the upswing, according to human rights watchers. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen closed the country’s most important independent newspaper and has locked up his most important opposition leader. Neighboring Vietnam is also cracking down on opposition voices, most recently locking up a blogger for criticizing the government.
Egypt is seeing increasing reports of extrajudicial killings for those who oppose the government. And Bahrain, where Trump is restarting an arms deal that Obama paused, is turning to increasingly repressive tactics, according to Amnesty International.
“In our field of work, corruption and good governance, the US has been historically identified as a moral leader as well as a champion against impunity for corruption,” said Alejandro Salas, the Americas regional director at Transparency International, a global anticorruption group.
Under Trump, he argues, “leaders from authoritarian regimes feel a free hand to act according to their own interests.”
Though Trump has backed away from human rights issues, several experts were quick to mention that the federal bureaucracy as a whole has not.
Salas said US aid to foreign countries continues to be conditioned on human rights records. And he pointed to the Justice Department, which under Trump is helping Panama extradite a former president from the United States back to his homeland to face corruption charges, even though he has ties to Trump.
“You have very strong institutions that are showing their strength,” said Salas, who is based in Germany. “They are managing to limit his decision. They are able to stop things.”
But Trump continues to seek ties to leaders that others shun. One example is Duterte, of the Philippines, whose national police force has killed thousands of drug dealers and drug users, and who is most recently trying to defund a human right commission.
Trump took the extraordinary step of calling the Filipino leader on April 29 to “congratulate” him and praise him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
“Many countries have the problem, we have the problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to tell you that,” Trump said according to a confidential transcript of the call that was leaked to the press.
He offered a meeting in the Oval Office.
“Seriously,” Trump said. “If you want to come over just let us know.”