President Trump met yesterday with Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, a visit the Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week characterized appropriately as “Trump’s Malaysia Swamp.”
As an Australian expert on Southeast Asia quoted in the New York Times said, “From a pure public relations point of view, it’s a meeting the White House should avoid. . . . Even a photo op with Kim Jong-un would be better.”
The Washington Post in an editorial yesterday said that the visit “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 US Justice Department.”
The Justice Department suit in question seeks recovery and forfeiture of over $1 billion in assets alleged to have been purchased with funds “misappropriated” from Malaysia’s One Malaysia Development Bank (or 1MDB), which the suit alleges is largely controlled and managed by someone identified as “Malaysian Official 1” — and who is widely known to be Najib.
In addition to his overall responsibility for the more than $4 billion of misappropriated funds, some $1 billion of which were laundered in the United States, “Malaysian Official 1” personally received $731 million, of which $620 million was supposedly returned, netting him a tidy $111 million.
Did President Trump know about any of this when the Malaysian Prime Minister was added to his schedule?
One fact not mentioned by any of those three major papers seems to provide a clue as to how this meeting was arranged. In May, a former Trump campaign aide — Healy E. Baumgardner-Nardone of the “45 Group” — registered as a foreign agent to represent the Office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia. She reported receiving $250,000 for her services.
The Malaysian government has paid lavishly in the past for Washington “swamp dwellers” to purchase influence and disparage its opponents and critics.
As the Journal editorial points out, during President Obama’s second term the Malaysians rewarded a major Democratic Party fundraiser handsomely for representing them, just before Najib secured an Obama state visit to Malaysia (the first by a US president in sixty years), and then received an even more unprecedented invitation from Obama to join him in Hawaii for a game of golf.
Back during George W. Bush’s first term, Malaysian business interests hired Belle Haven Consultants for fees in excess of $1 million over two years to promote Malaysian interests in the US.
Some of that money was reportedly used to influence the views of a prominent conservative think tank, through the intermediary of the Alexander Strategy Group, associated with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the notorious Jack Abramoff.
During Obama’s first term, the Najib government paid millions to APCO Worldwide of Washington, a portion of which went to the London-based “Fact Based Communications, Ltd.” to hire an individual named Josh Trevino, to organize a network of bloggers to write blog posts disparaging opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim — whose coalition was growing in strength heading into the 2013 elections.
That game blew up when Trevino was fired by The Guardian of London for failing to disclose that he was on the Malaysian payroll while writing a supposedly independent column. That forced Trevino to file a belated foreign agent registration exposing the whole scheme.
Back in Malaysia, the government does more than merely disparage its critics. Just last week, in the latest development in the 1MDB case, FBI special agent Robert Heuchling asserted in a filing in court in Los Angeles that “identifying witnesses [in the case] could result in intimidation or threaten their safety,” citing “reports of local officials and politicians who have been arrested for purportedly disclosing information linked to 1MDB.”
He also cited Malaysian press reports from August 30 that said “the driver of former Malaysian Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail was shot in public as a possible warning against assisting the US government in the case.”
If President Trump were serious about “draining the swamp” in Washington, he should have found a diplomatic excuse to postpone this embarrassing meeting. Doing so would have sent a strong signal to other lobbyists attempting to sell access to the President.
Having failed to do that, at a minimum he should find out who was responsible for inviting the Malaysian swamp to the White House. And if they did not properly inform him of the scandal surrounding Najib, someone needs to be disciplined.
Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Before joining AEI, he spent more than three decades in public service and higher education, working in the administrations of seven different presidents. Most recently, he served as president of the World Bank and deputy secretary of defense. At the World Bank he focused on the problem of corruption and the challenges of sub-Saharan Africa. As ambassador to Indonesia and assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Reagan administration, Mr. Wolfowitz was an advocate of reform and political openness. He was involved in Persian Gulf security for almost 30 years during three different tours at the Department of Defense.