RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump welcomes Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, to the White House today. Regional instability will be high on the list of topics for discussion. But it is Najib's problem with the U.S. Justice Department that's drawing interest - an investigation involving billions of dollars allegedly looted from a Malaysian government fund. Najib has denied any wrongdoing. From Kuala Lumpur, Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Where to begin...
CYNTHIA GABRIEL: This is mind-blowing.
SULLIVAN: Cynthia Gabriel heads the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism in Kuala Lumpur.
GABRIEL: Why would a kleptocrat - termed by the U.S. Department of Justice alone - be invited by the president?
SULLIVAN: She's talking about the so-called 1MDB investment fund scandal involving members of Najib's family and their associates - more than $3.5 billion that went missing, much of it allegedly laundered through the United States.
LORETTA LYNCH: The Department of Justice has filed a civil complaint seeking to forfeit and recover more than $1 billion in assets associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds stolen from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
SULLIVAN: That's then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch just over a year ago. The assets include diamond necklaces, a yacht, hotels and movie rights held by Red Granite Pictures for films including "The Wolf of Wall Street." Life imitates art.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) You're looking at me like I'm crazy.
ROB REINER: (As Max Belfort) Crazy? This is obscene.
DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) It was obscene in the normal world.
SULLIVAN: Last month, the Department of Justice put the civil cases on hold to pursue a criminal investigation into the missing funds. The White House went ahead and scheduled a visit anyway.
NURUL IZZAH ANWAR: It's icing on the cake, right?
SULLIVAN: Opposition lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar...
NURUL IZZAH: Despite the DOJ announcing there will be criminal prosecutions on his stepson as well as his former business associate, he is still being given an audience with the president. It is extremely disconcerting.
SULLIVAN: Disconcerting for her, but a victory for Najib, says Tricia Yeoh of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
TRICIA YEOH: It's actually a very strategic move for Najib. He is thinking of restoring his own global credibility, but more importantly, I think it's to shore up credibility on the business front.
SULLIVAN: ...The optics of a White House visit, suggesting political stability and business as usual to foreign investors, she says. And it also helps the deeply unpopular Najib with voters ahead of an upcoming general election. Shahriman Lockman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies...
SHAHRIMAN LOCKMAN: He can say, look, you know, President Trump welcomed me. Everything is great. Why are you complaining about 1MDB?
SULLIVAN: An emphatic win for Najib, analysts here say. What's less clear is what the Trump administration gets from the visit. But it's clearly hoping for a stronger partner in the region amid China's growing assertiveness. Prime Minister Najib's office declined NPR's request for comment. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Kuala Lumpur.
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