Trump hints that Mnuchin may skip Saudi conference

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

President Donald Trump opened the door Monday to the possibility that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may drop out of a high-profile investor conference in Saudi Arabia next week.

“We haven’t made a decision about going yet,” the President told reporters during a visit to Georgia. He said a final call would be made by Friday.

As of Monday morning, Mnuchin was still moving forward with plans to attend the Future Investment Initiative even as top bank executives and investors have withdrawn over the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a person familiar with the trip. This person cautioned that the decision is ultimately up to Trump.

Mnuchin has become the face of the Trump administration’s unwillingness to back away from Riyadh amid rising international attention to the fate of Khashoggi, who hasn’t been seen since going into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

According to two sources, the Saudis are preparing a report that will acknowledge Jamal Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey. One source says the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.

One of the sources acknowledged that the report is still being prepared and cautioned that things could change.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia considered delaying the Saudi investment conference until after the investigation, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

It is unclear if that is still under consideration, according to the source.

The Saudis “have to be aware that if they move forward with the conference, the story will be ‘nobody showed up,'” the source said.

CNN received no response when reaching out to the CEO, managing director and organizers of the conference about whether a delay had been discussed.

The organizers of the event said in a statement Monday that the conference will move ahead as planned starting Oct. 23, despite speakers and sponsors pulling out. CNN was among several media organizations to withdraw.

Speakers and sponsors have been abandoning the event in growing numbers.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi are some of the high-profile names who will no longer be attending the conference. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink and Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of investment firm Blackstone, have also withdrawn.

Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google executive who was on the list of speakers, will no longer participate, a spokesperson for his investment fund, Sinovation Ventures, told CNN on Monday.

Former Army general and CIA director David Petraeus, who now chairs the KKR Global Institute, has also withdrawn, according to a company spokesperson.

However, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde told reporters Saturday at the IMF’s annual meeting in Indonesia she still planned to go but would be paying close attention to new information about Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Former deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who returned to Goldman Sachs after leaving the Trump administration this year, is still planning to attend, according to a person familiar with her plans.

Turkish authorities claim to have evidence Khashoggi was killed inside the building, a claim the Saudis strenuously deny. Saudi Arabia has given Turkey permission to search its Istanbul consulate Monday afternoon, a Turkish diplomatic source told CNN.

“Mnuchin will make up his mind as the week progresses and as new information surfaces,” White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

Trump has said he’s unwilling to jeopardize US arms sales to Saudi over the Khashoggi case, but he’s also repeatedly promised to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case. So we’re going to have to see,” Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast Sunday. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”

On Monday, Trump said he will send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the situation with Saudi’s King Salman. He said in Georgia that Pompeo may add a stop in Turkey. “We want to find out what happened. He has got instructions to find out what happened,” Trump said. “It is a terrible situation.”

Mnuchin has repeatedly been called on to say whether he’d still attend the summit, which is part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to modernize the country’s economy and wean it off its dependence on oil.

The Saudi stop is one of several Mnuchin is due to make on his Middle East visit, so he will have a chance to cancel at the last minute without scrapping the entire trip. The secretary is scheduled to leave at the end of the week.

On Sunday, a Treasury Department spokesman told CNN, “We will be evaluating the information that comes out this week.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that he thinks Mnuchin should not go to the conference.

“I don’t think any of our government officials should be going and pretending it’s business as usual until we know exactly what’s happened here,” Rubio said.

Donna Borak and Zahraa Alkhalisi contributed to this report.