Trump’s “Extreme Vetting” for Muslims: Najib Exempt?
At 2:30 a.m. one day in mid-November, after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, the telephone rang in the official residence of Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.
Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor answered the telephone. On the other end was businessman Syed Azman of Weststar Group, a sprawling Malaysia-based conglomerate with interests in cars, aviation, construction, defense and engineering. Azman’s 40 helicopters shuttle people and goods to offshore oil platforms.
Known as the “AP king” for his ability to acquire scarce government-issued Approved Permits to import luxury cars into Malaysia, Azman, a Tan Sri – one of the highest of Malaysia’s arcane honorifics – had good news. The President-elect wanted to talk to her husband and told him to call two hours later, at 4:30 a.m. Azman arranged the call between Najib and Trump.
Azman is not just a rich Malaysian businessman. He knows Donald Trump relatively well and, according to a public statement by Rosmah, plays golf with the President, a real estate tycoon before his election. Some years ago Azman bought two of Trump’s ornate branded jets for use by his own businesses. During the presidential campaign, he re-loaned one of the jets back for use by Trump’s aides. It was repainted in the Trump livery and used during the campaign, a source in Kuala Lumpur told Asia Sentinel.
An email to White House press representative Michael C. Short, asking for details of the conversation, went unanswered. But a thrilled Rosmah, in a video recording released on Nov. 28 from a public function she had attended, described the call, saying Najib called Trump at the fixed time, and Trump answered himself. Rosmah said Trump and her husband discussed various things, and that the US president-elect commended Malaysia's economic growth rate. Trump, she added, also asked Najib when the latter planned to visit the US, to which the prime minister replied, "Wait until you settle in and I will come. I would like to discuss a few things with you."
Apparently Trump’s famed “extreme vetting” of Muslims didn’t extend to Najib. The Malaysian premier is the subject of an investigation by the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit (part of its Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section) for the theft of up to US$1 billion from the Malaysian government-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund. Earlier, during the administration of Barack Obama, Najib was a presidential favorite under the perception that he was a moderate Muslim leader and a regional powerhouse. The Malaysian prime minister was invited to play golf in Hawaii with Obama before word filtered up about the fact that he was involved in what appears to be the biggest scandal in Malaysian history. That ended Najib’s cozy relationship with the then president.
In addition to the theft, at least two people have died violently in acts tied to Najib’s administration. In October 2006, a Mongolian translator and international party girl, Altantuya Shaaribuu, was shot in the head twice and her body was blown up with military explosives in a patch of jungle outside of Kuala Lumpur by two of Najib’s bodyguards. She had played a minor role in the purchase of French submarines by the Malaysian government when Najib was defense minister. French officials have charged that €114 million (now US$123 million) in bribes was channeled through Najib to the United Malays National Organization and another €36 million went into a mysterious company in Hong Kong that was established by Najib’s best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, who was instrumental in the submarine transaction.
In the other incident, Anthony Kevin Morais, a prosecutor for Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission who was investigating the 1MDB scandal disappeared in November of 2015. His body was later found encased in cement in an oil drum that had been rolled into a river outside Kuala Lumpur. His brother, Charles Morais, an Atlanta businessman, later charged that Kevin Morais had been investigating Najib and his wife when he disappeared. Kevin Morais was believed to be channeling vital information about the scandal to the Sarawak Report, which has been instrumental in uncovering the details.
A half-dozen global jurisdictions including Switzerland, Singapore, the United Kingdom and others are awaiting the continuing US investigation, which involves allegations of the theft of at least US$2.5 billion and perhaps as much as US$4 billion from 1MDB, which was so disastrously overseen that it is believed to have lost as much as US$11.3 billion through theft and mismanagement.
Steered by a flamboyant young friend of the Najib family named Jho Taek Low, an unknown amount of that money allegedly went to finance Red Granite Pictures, the Hollywood entity that produced the blockbuster movie “Wolf of Wall Street.” Riza Aziz, Rosmah’s son by a previous marriage, was a co-producer of the picture. Considerably more has ended up in California and New York, in real estate owned by nominees, particularly Jho Low, as he is known, who are believed to represent the Najib family.
In July 2016 US federal prosecutors issued a 136-page document alleging that “over the course of an approximately four year period, between approximately 2009 and at least 2013, multiple individuals, including public officials and their associates, conspired to fraudulently divert billions of dollars from 1MDB through various means, including by defrauding foreign banks and by sending foreign wire communications in furtherance of the scheme, and thereafter, to launder the proceeds of that criminal conduct, including and through US financial institutions.
“The funds diverted from 1MDB were used for the personal benefit of the co-conspirators and their relatives and associates, including to purchase luxury real estate in the United States, pay gambling expenses in Las Vegas casinos, acquire more than US$100 million in artwork, invest in a major New York development project, and fund the production of major Hollywood films. 1MDB maintained no interest in these assets and saw no returns on these investments.”
As is customary, the US Justice Department had no comment on the progress of its continuing investigation into assets believed to have been stolen by the family or their associates.
Despite that, Najib and his cronies in the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party, have insulated themselves from loss of leadership of the country primarily by bribing the 190-odd cadres who determine the leadership of UMNO to keep him in power. UMNO leadership confers automatic status as prime minister.
The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and other publications have provided voluminous proof that Najib allegedly diverted at least US$681 million – he has acknowledged the deposit in his personal accounts in Kuala Lumpur but given no reason for the deposit. Other sources have put the amount as high as US$1 billion.
“Come over with your family, we can have lunch or dinner," Trump told Najib in the phone call, according to Rosmah. It remains to be seen if the invitation will continue to be extended.