US President Donald Trump has invited Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to Washington, officials said today, despite a Justice Department investigation into a major corruption scandal that has ensnared the leader. A White House statement said that Trump will welcome Najib to Washington on September 12 to strengthen ties “with one of America’s closest partners in Southeast Asia”. The Malaysian foreign ministry confirmed the visit. Najib has been battling 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. Both the prime minister and the fund deny any wrongdoing. Ties between the US and Malaysia have soured since the Justice Department filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize assets it said were purchased with stolen 1MDB money, encouraging Najib to move closer to China. US authorities are trying to seize assets, from high-end real estate to artworks, it says are worth about $1.7 billion.
The lawsuits said a figure called “Malaysian Official 1” knowingly received huge sums of 1MDB money. A Malaysian Cabinet minister has confirmed that official was Najib. Despite the scandal, the US views Malaysia as a key ally in Asia as it seeks to combat Beijing’s growing influence and will be keen to shore up relations. Barack Obama was the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia since 1966 when he paid a trip to the country in 2014, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Kuala Lumpur earlier this month.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the trip, said Najib has been eager to emphasise his friendship with Trump, and is keen to use the visit to downplay the possibility of further probes.