Behind Mnuchin's reversal on Saudi trip

For a week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin repeatedly offered the same, unwavering response when asked wh...

Posted: Oct 19, 2018 7:42 AM
Updated: Oct 19, 2018 7:42 AM

For a week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin repeatedly offered the same, unwavering response when asked whether he would attend an investor conference in Saudi Arabia: Yes, unless something changes.

On Thursday, it did. The overnight announcements by Mnuchin's counterparts in Britain and France, as well as the Netherlands, that they would bow out over the disappearance and apparent murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi were the final straw for Mnuchin, a senior administration official told CNN.

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Mnuchin's decision marked an unusual capitulation for the former investment banker and Hollywood financier, who served as Trump's campaign chairman in 2016 and has stood loyally by his boss through multiple crises.

He responded to a letter co-signed by 300 Yale classmates last year demanding he resign over Trump's comments equivocating between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville by saying that the criticism of Trump wasn't accurate.

When Trump used a slur to describe NFL players who knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, the Treasury secretary responded to questions from the press by arguing that players could "do free speech on their own time."

And he has resolutely been the president's defender-in-chief on trade in more than a dozen meetings on the international stage, often in the face of sharp outward criticism by his peers, top officials representing major trading partners of the United States.

Mnuchin was in Bali, Indonesia, at the International Monetary Fund summit of finance chiefs as international outcry escalated last week over Khashoggi. In his first comments on the case, he said he still planned to attend the Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh, hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a favorite of Trump and his son-in-law adviser Jared Kushner as well as of the international business community.

One by one, chief executives of the world's largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Société Generale and Standard Chartered rescinded their plans to attend.

Their cancellations followed the public withdrawal of other top executives from the event, widely referred to as "Davos in the Desert," including Uber's Dara Khosrowshahi, Blackrock's Larry Fink and Ford's Bill Ford. They were joined by finance chiefs like International Monetary Fund's managing director Christine Lagarde and Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

In calls last week and over the weekend, top executives told Mnuchin they wanted to cancel and urged the secretary to do the same. But Mnuchin stressed to them it was not his call to make, but the president's, according to the senior administration official.

In private, Mnuchin had relayed concerns from business leaders to both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even as he outwardly stuck with plans to attend. But the president insisted no decision should be made until other countries came forward with their announcements, the senior administration official said. In the meantime, Pompeo traveled to Saudi for an inconclusive fact-finding mission that included a photo op with Saudi King Salman and a meeting with the crown prince.

Then early Thursday morning, three finance chiefs -- direct foreign counterparts to Mnuchin -- from the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands cancelled their plans to go.

The United Kingdom's trade minister Liam Fox and France's finance minister Bruno Le Maire each expressed their deep reservations over their participation in the event without a clear understanding of the facts around Khashoggi's fate. "The conditions have not been met for me to go to Riyadh," Le Maire told France's television Public Senat. "The facts are serious and we want to know the truth."

Fox encouraged the Saudi and Turkish governments to conduct "a thorough, credible, transparent and prompt investigation," in a statement provided by a UK spokesman, adding it was "not the right time" for the trade minister to attend.

A second administration official said Mnuchin's foreign counterparts had reached out to him earlier when they were making decisions whether to attend the conference.

Mnuchin met later Thursday morning at the White House with Trump and Pompeo, who told reporters in brief remarks afterward that he wanted to give the Saudis more time to investigate what happened to Khashoggi. "I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that, so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding" what happened to the Washington Post journalist, last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, the day a Saudi hit squad allegedly arrived at the consulate.

The top US diplomat added a caveat that he and Trump have been underscoring frequently in the last few days. "We have a long strategic relationship with Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Pompeo said. "They're an important partner. We need to be mindful of that as well."

But less than an hour later, Mnuchin tweeted a change of plans: "Just met with @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo and we have decided, I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia."

The announcement, a day ahead of a deadline set earlier this week by Trump, sent already-volatile markets tumbling further. Mnuchin's move was quickly matched by Trump's former deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, now an executive at Goldman Sachs, and Fox Business News, which had been the last remaining media partner attached to the event.

It remains unclear whether the secretary will still participate in a separate event in Saudi Arabia at a joint center to combat terrorist financing during his pre-scheduled multi-country trip, according to the second senior administration official.

Last year, the US government opened the Terrorism Financing Targeting Center in Saudi Arabia to share information about terrorism financing, which the secretary has pledged to visit once a year. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are also members of the group.

Thursday afternoon, as he left Washington en route to a rally in Montana, Trump said he is still waiting for the results of Saudi and Turkish investigations before offering his definitive assessment of the situation. But he indicated that Saudi Arabia will face "severe" consequences if the Kingdom is found to be involved in Khashoggi's death.

"It certainly looks that way to me, it's very sad," the President said on Thursday when asked if Khashoggi is dead.

Asked about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found to be involved in his killing, Trump said: "Well it'll have to be severe, I mean it's bad, bad stuff. We'll see what happens. Ok?"

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