US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin defends trip to Saudi Arabia amid uproar over Khashoggi killing

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described what happened to Jamal Khashoggi as a "terrible situation" and said that the US would not go easy on countries that violate human rights. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday (Oct 21) defended his decision to meet Saudi officials this week, saying his trip was aimed at reinforcing ties at a critical moment, as the United States tries to ratchet up pressure on Iran.

Mr Mnuchin, speaking during a stop in Jerusalem, said the economic and strategic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia was too important to be derailed by an international uproar over the Saudis' killing of a dissident journalist.

The trip to Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia faces an intense global backlash over the death of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who lived in Virginia.

The Trump administration is under pressure to deliver a forceful response, but President Donald Trump has offered shifting reactions to Saudi accounts of the killing.

He hardened his tone late last Saturday, telling The Washington Post that the Saudis had engaged in "deception".

Mr Mnuchin described what happened to Mr Khashoggi as a "terrible situation" and said that the US would not go easy on countries that violate human rights, even if they have close economic ties.

"I think the human rights issues are very important issues, and I think that the United States needs to play a leadership role on human rights," he said.

But Mr Mnuchin said it was important to wait for more facts to emerge before determining if Saudi Arabia should face sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act - which authorises the US government to penalise human rights offenders - and added that it was "premature" to even discuss sanctions at this point.

Last week, Mr Mnuchin became one of the final high-profile figures to withdraw from an investor conference that begins in Riyadh on Tuesday, ultimately determining that it would be inappropriate to mingle with global business leaders weeks after Mr Khashoggi was killed in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.

"I did not think it was appropriate to go and speak at the conference," Mr Mnuchin said in an interview on Sunday.

But he said the US must preserve its ties to Saudi Arabia, particularly as the US tries to stop Iran from participating in the global financial system.

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