Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said Saturday that he was sticking with plans to attend a government-sponsored investment conference in Saudi Arabia this month despite the uproar over the disappearance of a prominent Saudi journalist, although he said he would reconsider that decision “if more information comes out.”
Mnuchin said he was concerned about the fate of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last week and has not been seen since.
Turkish investigators say Khashoggi, a well-connected Washington Post columnist who had become a critic of the powerful Saudi crown prince, was killed and his body dismembered by an elite Saudi security team. Saudi officials say Khashoggi left the consulate freely, but have not substantiated their claim.
President Trump, who had said little publicly about Khashoggi for more than a week, acknowledged for the first time Saturday that the Saudi government could have ordered his killing, saying there would be “severe punishment” if that were confirmed.
In an excerpt from an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” released Saturday, Trump said his administration “would be very upset and angry” if the Saudi government was behind Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“As of this moment, they deny it and they deny it vehemently,” Trump said. “Could it be them? Yes.”
Until now, the Trump administration’s relatively muted response to Khashoggi’s case — and its continued support for a summit seen as a pet project of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — reflects its close economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia.
Mnuchin spoke on the sidelines of a World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where Khashoggi’s fate shadowed discussions of the trade dispute between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies.
Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Oct. 23 investment summit — dubbed “Davos in the desert” after the annual economic forum that draws the world’s biggest political and business leaders — has become a lightning rod in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Media companies including the Financial Times, CNN, Bloomberg, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times withdrew their participation. British entrepreneur Richard Branson, Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim have also said they wouldn’t attend.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said that despite her concerns over Khashoggi, she did not intend to change her plans and would attend the summit.
“Horrifying things have been reported, and I am horrified,” Lagarde said Saturday. “But I have to conduct the business of the IMF in all corners of the world, and with many governments.”
At the meeting in Indonesia, which was attended by many of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers, Mnuchin also faced questions over the escalating U.S. trade war with China.
Speaking to reporters, the Treasury secretary reiterated Trump’s demand for “free, fair and reciprocal” trade and disputed the view that U.S. economic policy was moving in a protectionist direction.
Mnuchin said the U.S. was still working toward negotiating free trade agreements with the European Union and Japan. He added those moves would not amount to “a coalition to pressure China.”
Amid a tit-for-tat dispute that has seen the U.S. and China impose import duties on goods from the other country, making them more expensive for consumers, the IMF last week cut its global growth forecast for the 2019 fiscal year from 3.9% to 3.7%, citing uncertainties caused by protectionism.
The U.S. has threatened to impose tariffs on another $267 billion worth of Chinese imports, which would place almost all of what China sells to the U.S. under restrictions.
The face-off has alarmed world leaders. At the meeting, Indonesian President Joko Widodo likened the U.S. and China to the warring kingdoms portrayed in the fictional HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Argentina’s finance minister, Nicolás Dujovne, told reporters that it was up to the U.S. and China to resolve the dispute, while Malaysian finance minister Lim Guan Eng said the tariff hikes were “already impacting global growth.”
While countries like Malaysia could theoretically stand to benefit from investment by businesses seeking to sidestep the trade war, Lim told The Times: “In the long term, everyone loses.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said this week that “the trade friction is provoked by the U.S. side alone” and that China was simply responding. The U.S. disputes that, accusing China of unfair trade and investment rules.
Many leaders expressed hope that a proposed meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, at a summit of G-20 countries in Argentina, could soothe the tensions.
But asked whether that meeting would take place, Mnuchin said, “I don’t think any decision has been made.”
Special correspondent Roughneen reported from Nusa Dua and Times staff writer Bengali from Hyderabad, India.
Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali