Trump Meets Another Scandal-Ridden, Golf-Loving Leader at the White House

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media about Hurricane Irma next to first lady Melania Trump on the South Lawn the White House upon their return to Washington, U.S., from Camp David, September 10, 2017. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

President Donald Trump is meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday—and the two leaders have a lot more in common than a shared love of golf.

While the Trump administration is currently under investigation for allegations relating to Russian hacking of the 2016 election, Najib is currently embroiled in a scandal that sees the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigating the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) banking scandal.

But it is likely that the two scandal-wracked leaders will avoid this large elephant in the room.

Trump and Razak are instead due to discuss security in Southeast Asia, counterterrorism, China's ambitions in the South China Sea and the North Korean threat, particularly since the murder of North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam at Malaysia's international airport saw relations between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang plummet.

Asked about the IMBD scandal, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders told reporters at a briefing on Monday: "We're not going to comment on an ongoing investigation being led by the Department of Justice, and that investigation is apolitical and certainly independent of anything taking place tomorrow."

Najib created the 1MDB fund in 2009 with the stated goal to promote economic development in Malaysia but instead, investigators claim, the fund became a vehicle for fraud and money laundering. Worldwide investigations began in March 2015, with ongoing probes related to 1MDB, or on companies and individuals linked to it, ongoing in at least 10 countries, according to Bloomberg.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that U.S. authorities traced almost $700 million to bank accounts that were allegedly in Najib's name. The prime minister has repeatedly denied any accusation of wrongdoing and 1MDB also reject the allegations.

In one of the investigation's most recent developments in June, U.S. authorities have been seeking to recover $540 million in assets that they believed were purchased with misappropriated funds—among the items repossessed were a Picasso painting that was gifted to actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the rights to two Hollywood films and over $8.1 million in jewellery from model Miranda Kerr.

Trump and Najib have reportedly met in the past and even played golf together—a keen player, Najib also golfed with President Barack Obama, who faced repeated calls from the Washington Post's editorial board to distance himself from the prime minister in the aftermath of the 1MDB scandal and the Malaysian government's increased crackdown of the opposition.

Obama's successor may be enjoying an even closer relationship to the Malaysian prime minister. According to BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, Najib has a signed photo of them both on his desk from the Donald inscribed "To my favourite PM."

M'sian PM Najib is a golfing buddy of Trump and has a signed photo of them both on his desk from the Donald inscribed 'To my favourite PM'

— Jonathan Head (@pakhead) November 9, 2016

Notwithstanding their golfing partnership, the president may not be keen to discuss DOJ investigations, as he himself is reportedly facing a probe for obstruction of justice as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the alleged ties of the Trump presidential campaign to Russia.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month, citing anonymous sources, that lawyers for Trump have met "several times" with Mueller in recent months and "submitted memos" claiming the president didn't obstruct justice by firing former FBI director James Comey.

Najib, who is seeking reelection for a third term, is likely to use the meeting to boost his popularity at home, and according to human rights activists the White House meeting sends the wrong signal.

"There's little doubt that Najib will use this White House visit to burnish his credentials going into next year's election in Malaysia, and redouble his repression of critics using the stamp of approval from this visit," HRW's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told Reuters ahead of the visit.