Mnuchin says he’ll attend Saudi investment meeting despite reports of journalist’s killing

NUSA DUA, Indonesia >> U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said today 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, Oct. 2 and has not been seen since.

Turkish investigators say Khashoggi, a journalist who had become a critic of the powerful Saudi crown prince, was killed and his body dismembered by a Saudi security team. Saudi officials say Khashoggi left the consulate freely, but have not substantiated their claim.

President Donald Trump, who had said little publicly about Khashoggi for more than a week, acknowledged for the first time today 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” to be aired Sunday, 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 meeting 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.

Saudi Arabia’s Oct. 23 investment meeting has become a lightning rod since 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 CEO 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 today. “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. He 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.”

The IMF last week cut its global growth forecast for the 2019 fiscal year from 3.9 percent to 3.7 percent, citing uncertainties caused by protectionism.

The U.S. has threatened to impose tariffs on $267 billion more worth of Chinese imports, which would place almost all of what China sells to the U.S. under restrictions.

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