WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House, he thanked him for “all the investment you’ve made in the United States”.
Mr Trump did not single out Mr Najib’s patronage of his hotel two blocks from the White House, but he could have: The Malaysian leader was spotted entering and exiting the Trump International Hotel with his entourage on Monday and Tuesday.
Mr Najib’s three-day visit to the US has brought at least 24 hours of activity and sales, including the use of meeting rooms, to the glamorous 263-room hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue that Mr Trump owns through a trust.
Signs of the Malaysian delegation’s presence were obvious at the property. At lunchtime on Monday, more than a dozen members relaxed in a lounge area reserved for hotel guests. That evening, they came and went from the hotel, sometimes returning to the valet stand with shopping bags, said a report by the Washington Post.
Events of this scale would probably mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the Trump Organisation, based on confirmed spending of other groups that have used the venue.
Mr Trump has come under fire for declining to divest his interest in the hotel, which is now managed by his sons. Critics say the hotel creates opportunities for foreign governments and special interests to enrich the president as they try to curry favour with him, reported the Post.
The White House denied that Mr Najib had picked the hotel at Mr Trump’s behest.
“We certainly don’t book their hotel accommodations,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “So I couldn’t speak to the personal decision they made about where to stay here in DC.”
Whatever the motivation, the choice of lodgings added to the awkwardness of a meeting already replete with ethical questions.
State investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad is under investigation by the Justice Department as part of a corruption scandal. Critics have alleged that Mr Najib is fending off the issue by removing investigators and dismissing negative news reports about him as “fake news”.
In these respects, he is not unlike Mr Trump. So it was perhaps not a surprise that the two leaders skipped a news conference, kept their public remarks brief, and stayed on the safe ground of trade and counter-terrorism.
American presidents have long done an awkward dance with the leaders of Malaysia, a valuable trading partner and dependable counterterrorism ally of the US, but a country that has in the past been rocked by allegations of corruption.
Mr Trump has not hesitated to meet autocratic leaders — or leaders with legal problems.
He invited the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, despite what critics said was his record of ordering extra-judicial killings of drug dealers.
Human rights advocates criticised the Najib-Trump meeting because of the signal they said it would send.
“It’s a strange meeting,” said Mr John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“Clearly, President Trump has repeatedly shown that he is willing to host authoritarian leaders. But this meeting, in some respects, marks a new low. Najib has been engaged in a broad crackdown against journalists, civil society, even cartoonists.” AGENCIES